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Athena Review Vol.I, no.4


Documentary Amphorae


Mapping the Ancient Wine Trade: Roman amphorae were large, two-handled pottery jugs used to transport and store wine, olive oil, and other liquids. The word amphora is Greek for "two ears", describing their handles.  Their elongated form evolved from Bronze and Early Iron Age storage jars including pithoi and earlier Greek amphorae. In Roman times the amphora was used as a unit of liquid measure containing 2 urnae, 8 congii, or 48 sextarii (the latter, equivalent to a pint). One amphora thus equalled about 6 gallons or 24 liters. The amphora was also used as a measurement of ship tonnage, equivalent to 80 Roman pounds. Literally millions of pottery amphorae were used in commerce throughout the empire. Vessels and sherds of Roman amphorae, commonly found at archaeology sites, thus serve as a ready means of tracing the spread of the wine trade in and beyond the empire (for example, in Britain and Gaul prior to Caesar).

Fig.1: Dressel type IA amphora, the earliest Roman form introduced into Gaul.

Dressel's amphora typology: Roman amphorae and their dates and places of manufacture were first documented in detail by Heinrich Dressel, a 19th century German epigrapher who worked with Theodor Mommsen in compiling the vast Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL). To accomplish this essential research task, Dressel was able to draw upon a literal mountain of evidence at Monte Testaccio ("pottery sherd mountain") in Rome, where ancient merchants and shippers had dumped amphorae for centuries. From this huge data collection, Dressel grouped amphorae into types based on their form and place of manufacture, as shown by maker's stamps and shipping information marked on their necks.Thanks to the typology begun by Dressel, amphorae now provide reliable spatial and temporal information about Roman trade throughout the Mediterranean zone. Distribution maps of amphorae finds in Gaul (fig.2) show distinct concentrations along coasts and rivers, the main trade routes for their transport. 

Fig.2: Distribution of Dressel I amphorae of all types in Gaul. Yellow areas show elevations over 200 m (after Cunliffe 1988).]

T he earliest Roman amphorae are Dressel type I, originating in Italy from the late 2nd c. BC to the early 1st c. AD. Many came from Cosa on the Mediterranean coast. Dressel I is subdivided into Dressel IA (fig.1) prior to Caesar and the Gallic Wars (58-50 BC) and the later, narrower form IB, introduced after the end of the Gallic Wars (fig.3). Roman amphorae found throughout Gaul after about 100 BC along the coasts and rivers show early proliferation of Roman luxury goods before Caesar's conquest. Some of the earliest Graeco-Italian amphorae from the 2nd century BC bear Iberian shipper's marks, indicating native distribution.

During the 1st century BC, as many as 40 million amphorae were transported into Gaul. Distribution evidence shows steady or rising demand but dramatic changes over time in centers of wine and vessel production, indicating that these two factors varied independently. The later Dressel IB amphorae are much less common throughout Gaul, revealing a decrease in the import of Italian wine after Caesar's conquest and corresponding increases in local production. In Brittany on the northeast coast of Gaul, 70% of identifiable Dressel I types are IA, while only 30% are IB. This change after the Gallic Wars marks growing wine production in Spain as well as Provence. Simultaneous increases occur in the use of longer-necked forms of amphorae known as Dressel 2-4 types, made of clay from the province of Terraconensis (today's Tarragon, near Barcelona, Spain) and Aspiran in Provence. Despite the change in the origin of the wine, however, the Dressel 2-4 amphorae were distributed along the same earlier trade routes as the Dressel I types.

Fig.3: Dressel type IB amphora, used after the Gallic Wars.

Large collections of Roman amphorae recovered by underwater archaeology are displayed in museums at St. Raphael, Istres, and Marseille.


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