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Amphora Or Not

in Andalucia, Spain
By Nick Nutter | 10 Sep 2019

I wonder if anybody else has noticed the proliferation of amphorae, in parks and gardens, in private collections, in museums, of all shapes and sizes? Perhaps not, but the sight of all these barnacle-encrusted jars set me to thinking, ‘Where did they all come from’?

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Containers of Choice

I know that amphorae were used between about 3500 BC right through to the 7th century AD. They were used to carry perishable goods, grain, olive oil, wine, olives, dates, fish. If you could put it in a jar, then amphorae were the container of choice. Scores of kilns, scattered all over the Mediterranean from Portugal to the Black Sea, baked millions of them, over a period of time.

There are some places in the coastal areas of the Mediterranean, particularly around the Greek islands, Cyprus, Crete, Sicily and Sardinia where snorkel divers regularly come across these vessels scattered on the seafloor, deposited there after the boat in which they were being carried sank. Deepwater excavations and research have discovered ancient ships, some in remarkably good condition, with their cargo of amphorae still intact.

Amphora Collections

Even so, all these finds cannot possibly account for the hundreds, probably thousands, of intact amphorae sat on mantle pieces, in gardens and in display cases, as well as those in every museum that has even a tentative connection with the sea. Do you think I exaggerate? Starting in the west, Cadiz Museum has an excellent collection as has Malaga archaeological museum and the maritime museum. Odd amphorae appear at Huelva and Jimena de la Frontera. More may be seen at Almeria. Carthagenia Underwater Archaeological Museum has dozens. They even turn up in Seville, Madrid and the British Museum. I am not talking about pieces of pot that may or may not be part of an amphora, I am talking about full size, aged, barnacle and worm-infested relics of every pattern.

Dressel Patterns

That was something else, the patterns. Back in the 19th century, a German scholar called Dressel decided to sit down and make the study of the various designs of amphorae his life’s work. The shape of the amphorae depended on when it was made, where it was made and what it carried. Over 4000 years there was a lot of variation. Dressel managed to identify about 45 patterns. Today there are hundreds of models known to scientists. It is remarkable that there is at least one entire example somewhere and, if I did a count up, which I am not going to do, they do not call me Dressler, I reckon the numbers of intact amphorae would far exceed the number of amphorae found.

The mystery was solved in August 2019.

Castillo de San Andres, Carboneras Castle

I happened to be in Carboneras in the far northeast of Almeria province, in the castle to be precise. There, in a subterranean vault were a few dozen amphorae. Each had a certificate of where it was found and where it originated. They all had certificates of authenticity and price tags starting at 350 Euros.

Anforas De Mar

Had I stumbled on an amphorae smuggling ring? No, I had come across a project called ‘Anforas De Mar’, a local initiative to reproduce amphorae to an exact pattern. They are manufactured locally, and then the containers are submerged in the harbour at Carboneras where they are subjected to temperature-controlled streams of seawater. The local flora and fauna are encouraged to take up residence and hey presto. Some months later you have an amphora that could be mistaken for one 4000 years old.

For those who would like to read about amphorae in more depth, click here.

About the Author

Nick has lived and worked in Andalucia for over 20 years. He and his partner, Julie Evans, have travelled extensively and dug deep into the history and culture, producing authoritative articles on all aspects of the region. Nick has written four books about Andalucia and writes articles for other websites and blogs.

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