On the trail of standards for amphorae

Underwater shot of amphorae from a ship sunken in ancient times. © OeAW-OeAI/H. Gonzalez Cesteros

A questioning look at the famous transport vessels of antiquity: amphorae have been in use since the 1st millennium BC. B.C. in standardized shapes and sizes, clarify the results of investigations by an international team of researchers. The scientists say that it is becoming clear how people adapted certain aspects of the ceramics to optimize transport and trade and to react to market developments.

The amphora is almost a symbol of antiquity: these characteristic vessels were in use from the beginning of this epoch up to the Byzantine period. Wine and oil in particular, but also other products from the ancient world were stored and transported in them – in the Mediterranean region and far beyond. Basically, it is known that depending on the type of content, a slightly different shape was chosen: Cylindrical amphorae were intended for wine and bulbous ones for oil. The average capacity of the amphorae was 20 to 30 liters.

“The large number of transport amphorae available as archaeological finds offers the opportunity to learn more about the economy in the period from the 1st millennium BC to the 1st millennium BC. to the 15th century AD,” says Horacio González Cesteros of the Complutense University of Madrid. He is part of the team of Austrian, British and Spanish researchers who worked on the development of the amphora. For their publication, they brought together various research results related to the vessels that were used in pre-Roman, Roman and Byzantine times. They recorded and compared the shape, capacity, stamps and inscriptions, material composition and craftsmanship.

Standardization paid off

As reported by the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW), the test results made it clear that a standardization process in the production of the transport containers began early on. This was already evident in the 1st millennium BC. and then later intensified. It becomes clear how the production facilities adapted to changing economic conditions: increased demand led to certain amphora shapes becoming firmly established and more varied local shapes no longer being produced. It is becoming apparent, for example, that the typical volume-to-weight ratio was regularly increased in order to optimize the supply of goods from the provinces in the growing Roman Empire.

In addition, the standard shapes could be influenced, for example, by how well a person could carry them alone or whether they were intended for transport by land, river or sea. Comparable to today's freight containers, such as the well-known ISO containers, the reason for the standardization was above all efficient transport logistics and the optimal coordination of production and sales processes, writes the ÖAW. The results also provide insight into the strong networking and high complexity of the economy at that time. González Cesteros says: "We now better understand how bulk agricultural products were packaged and transported efficiently over long distances".

Oil amphorae from Spain for troops in Germania

The researchers also related their findings to regional developments and historical events. For example, they were able to show the cause of an increase in the production of standardized amphorae for olive oil in southern Spain, which is emerging in the Augustan period: It was therefore related to the Roman conquests in Germania. Because the troops on the northern border of the Roman Empire had to be supplied as effectively as possible with oil, wine and other Mediterranean products through deliveries in amphorae.

Parallels between the ancient amphora concept and today's systems become clear. Nevertheless, Cesteros sees an important difference: “One cannot speak of an 'industrial' production of the vessels in the modern sense. Because unlike today, the products were handmade by the potters, which meant that a certain deviation from the standard was unavoidable,” concludes the scientist.

Source: Austrian Academy of Sciences

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