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The Amphores



The amphora is a type of Greek vase, but in our application it is a two-handled one of the Mycenaean era (1500 B.C.). The Canaan population, from the costal region between Palestine and Syria, were the first to use these containers frequently for the transport of foodstuffs by sea. The ancient Egyptians, in contact with the nearby Canaan population, appreciated the usefulness of these containers from the XIV century B.C. and they handed it on to the Greeks, who from the VII century B.C. and after with their settlements, used them on a large scale in their sea trade. Gradually, [they] adopted these containers.


The amphora is a type of Greek vase, but in our application it is a two-handled container, used in ancient times for sea-transportation of foodstuffs.

Its name, Amphiphoreus or Amphoreus, is written on the clay tablets of the Mycenaean era (1500 B.C.). The Canaan population, from the costal region between Palestine and Syria, were the first to use these containers frequently for the transportation of foodstuffs by sea. The ancient Egyptians, who were in contact with the nearby Canaan population, appreciated the usefulness of these containers from the XIV century B.C. and they handed on that tradition to the Greeks, who from the VII century B.C. and after with their settlements, used them on a large scale in sea trade. Gradually all the Mediterranean peoples, and not least the Romans, adopted these containers.

Esempio di come veniva effettuato lo stivaggio delle anfore!The success of the amphoras was due to sea trade. Man, in fact, has always used the seaways; in the beginning using anything that could float, like a tree trunk or bunches of dry herbs tied together, then building primordial boats and improving them more and more. Since very ancient times, navigation has had a great importance for the civilization's evolution.

In the Mediterranean area, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Etruscans, had commercial routes. The Phoenician ships, particularly equipped, were called "gauloi" for the rotundity of their bottom. Firm in navigation, they had a length/width ratio of four to one and reached thirty metres. Who wishes to see the remains of an ancient Phoenician-Punic ship, can go to Marsala, in southwest Sicily, to the archaeological museum Baglio Anselmi; the nearby sea preserves many other ships.

The Greeks, I'm referring to Greeks of Doric descent, after the fall of the Mycenaean Kingdoms, started sea trade, but more than from trading, they were absorbed in the founding of colonies in Southern Italy, in France and in Spain, coming into conflict with the Punic colonies of Northern Africa, of Sicily, of Sardinia and of Spain.

The Punic were more clever than the Greeks in navigation and trading, at least in the oriental period (end of VIII-VII century B.C.). We know that the Etruscans sailed across the Mediterranean and traded as well as the Greeks and Phoenicians; their goods have been found, not only in Italy, but in Northern Africa and in Southern France, where it is worth mentioning the Etruscan wreck of Cap d'Antibes, dating from the last half of the VI century B.C.

In the centuries that followed, Roman ships followed the ancient routes not far from the coast. The main port, where all the known routes of the world converge, is Ostia (Rome), where ships coming from the East and carrying precious goods like fabric from Phoenicia, cotton from India, perfumes from Arabia and pearls from the Red Sea, arrive.

The Romans' nourishment is obtained from the "via dell’annona". The ships that follow it bring wheat from Egypt, which is imported even from Sicily and Spain. There is also a route towards the West to buy up Great Britain's tin that arrived across Gallia. As we have already said, the sea traffic was very intense since ancient times. The merchant ships, driven by modest sails, sometimes by oars, ploughed the seas as near as possible to the coasts to orient themselves with the lighthouses and be ready to find shelter in case of bad weather.

Navigation wasn't very safe anyway for the scarce manoeuvrability of the steerage equipment, for the inexactness of the instruments on board and for the precariousness of the anchorage. Many ships were shipwrecked because of storms; others to avoid being sunk were lightened by throwing the cargo over board.

Sometimes the oneraries, even with a calm navigation, were freed from the cargo, because it was damaged, or, in other circumstances, a bad storage broke many containers and they finished in the sea too. Year after year, century after century, the Mediterranean has become more and more enriched and conserves in its sunken wrecks or in some dump, many ancient remains of every sort: bronzes, pottery, marbles, metal blocks.


Structure of the AmphorasLet's try to know and appreciate this ancient and still used "way of packing". It is simple and functional; it reflects traditions, the brilliance of the various populations that lived in the Mediterranean, the sense of rationality, the development of cultures during the centuries in conformity with the political and economical changes. The shapes of the amphoras change according to the population of origin and their evolution has changed while civilization proceeded. The ancient Greeks used to say that a vase, in order to be nice, must be functional and that, in order to be functional, it must be nice. The ancient amphoras that are in our seas are, in their various shapes, something nice, elegant and functional. They are elegant but also suitable to be inserted in each other in the oneraries' hold in many superimposed strata, making the cargo firm, without leaving any unused space below deck.

The six parts that constitute an amphora are, in the design near: the edge (1), the neck (2), the two handles (3), the body (4) also called belly and the foot (5) or peduncle. Reading the reports (picture on the right), besides edge (1), neck (2), handles (3), belly (6) and foot (7) you find also the expressions joint (4) and shoulder (5) to describe the evolution of the shapes. The handles are used for a solid hold, the pointed foot permitted to place them in the layer of sand that covered the bottom of the hold, or to set them up in rows well ranged in the sand or in the port’s earth. It is supposed that the docker of that time grabbed these containers holding them by the handles and the foot and hoisted them on his shoulder, or otherwise the amphora was tied to a pole and transported by two people.

The navicularius, with his skill, stowed the onoraries with great ability. A wine amphora of the republican age could contain approximately 20/26 litres. In that period the word amphora was used also as unit of measure:

one amphora = 26 litres = 8 congii;
1 congio = 3,28 litres = 6 sextari

The State examined and branded some of these containers in the same way as today unbottled litres or half litres are branded, guarantying their capacity measure.These big vases were made with the lathe, an instrument that had existed since many ancient ages, with unpurified clay, sometimes remodelled in the external part with different clay. places of origin of the goods and the construction was, so to say, a "mass production". They were In fact modelled in six different parts, assembled before the baking; these six parts are in order: edge, neck, handles, body and foot. The edge is the end part of the neck, the handles are for holding; the point where the neck inserts into the belly or body, which is the central part of the vase, is called joint, whilst the shoulder is the upper part of the belly, or body, and the foot is the lower point of the belly and sinks into the sand. For the conservation of the goods it was important to have a hermetic sealing. Many have been the techniques used to reach this goal, even considering the kind of goods to keep. They were nearly always corked with wood or cork disks, covered with pressed pozzolana, other times they used to stick a green pine-cone in the neck, which besides being used as a cork, gave an aroma to the contents. Very rarely we find, screwed in the upper part of the neck, another little full amphora, modelled with the same clay of the container: it is the famous "anforisco", of which many specimens have been found in Spain together with amphoras from Betica; some have been found also on our coasts (for a deeper study of the subject see: "Las amforas Romanas in Espana", Miguel Beltran Lloris, pag.78-80). The amphoras have different signs that indicate the content or the origin, the forwarder or the trader and sometimes the constructor potter. Let's distinguish these "signs". The Signacula are the brands impressed in the clay or on the cork before the baking and indicate the name of the maker that could be the ship's ship owner or the forwarder.

The Graffiti, carved before the baking, pertain to the potter; the ones carved after the baking regard the commerce, that is, the weight, the kind of goods and the stowage order; they are difficult to interpret.

The Tituli Picti are inscriptions painted with pig bristles or with a finger; they show the contents, the origin, the transporter, the weight and the number of order in the hold. On every part of amphora, it's possible, eventually, to find an inscription, usually the most signed parts are the neck, the handles and the shoulder. Every fragment found must be examined carefully, because if it has a sign it becomes more interesting. Different goods were carried in the amphoras: wine, which was in containers impermeabilized with resin or bitumen, oil, which has left its taste and its husk in the remains, olives, wheat, seeds, spices, vinegar, dates and garum, a kind of fish sauce. In the Republican and the Imperial era the excellent wines of Cos were imitated in Italy, as Catone says in the De agricoltura, with grapes dipped in sea water; you obtained a "made in Italy" product, very similar to the Greek one, and the cunning of that time, imitating the product, imitated also the container: you can see the Dressel amphoras 2/4 of Greek tradition. The amphoras used for transporting goods were often used for more than one journey; many times, once they arrived at destination, they were filled again with other merchandise and, stowed, they were ready to leave. When they were no longer suitable for the transporting of goods, they were recycled as baby cradles, parts of houses, and port structures and also as funeral urns for the poorest.


Evoluzione della forma delle anfore!

Without any doubt, the most ancient and famous classification of these two-handled vases is the one made by the German archaeologist Henry Dressel who lived for many years in Rome and in 1889 studied the brands of the amphoras of Monte Testaccio. Near Porta Portese (Rome), this mountain gives us an idea of the great use that was made of these containers in the Roman era. In fact, it is just a 30 metres high dumping ground of fragments of amphoras.

The Dressel list (from Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum) is a typological classification of the Roman amphoras, and in spite of the contrary opinion of many archaeologists, it is also a chronological list, even though with many gaps. It is universally adopted because it is the starting point of the following classifications; it has to be read line after line: the first concerns the republican shapes (II and I century B.C.), the others concern imperial shapes (I-III century B.C.).

The lamented professor Nino Lamboglia, together with his French colleague Fernand Benoit, revised and worked out the original Dressel list with a new list, rearranging the various shapes, with more chronological reliability. The most complete and documented classification regarding amphoras, to which I refer, is the one published by the French archaeologist Jean Pierre Joncheray in 1976, entitled "Nouvelle classification des anphores dècouvertes lors de fouilles sousmarines".

It's the typological and chronological description of the amphoras that were recovered along the French coasts; the author is a passionate archaeologist as well as a very good diver. The French have made more progress and are at a higher level than us in the research and the study of underwater archaeology.


The Canaan amphoras

To give a complete picture of the various types of containers that, starting from the second millennium B.C. until the late Byzantine era, were used by the numerous Mediterranean populations, would be like outlining the ancient world's economical history and this isn't contemplated by this monograph.

Let's start from the first amphoras used for transportation that appeared in the Mediterranean, that is the Canaan amphoras, made by the homonymous population, which lived on the coastal region between Palestine and Syria, today's Lebanon, from XVIII to VII century B.C.Their shape, already with the characteristics that will be in common with the others later on, was of top or elongated cone, short and thin neck, well accentuated shoulders, handles attached to the shoulder and to the belly. As already said, the Canaan populations transmitted the use of these containers to the Egyptians, who, in turn, transmitted it to the Greeks.

The Etruscan amphoras

Anfore di varie forme dal VII al V Sec. a.C.The Etruscan amphoras appeared in the commercial trade for only 200 years, from the VII to the V century B.C. They are very rare, have different shapes with well-defined characteristics. They have been recovered in fairly good number on the French coast, mainly in a wreck of La LoyeCap d'Antibes. In Italy they have been found isolated in front of the coasts of Livorno, Castiglioncello,Vada, Secche della Meloria. A little deposit, discharged by a wreck, is along a sloping wall of the mini archipelago of the Formiche of Grosseto, at a depth of 80 metres. A specimen exhibited in a shop of Porto S. Stefano, surrounded by fashionable clothes, cuts out a fine figure. The Etruscan shapes have a slightly marked edge, typically oval belly that becomes narrower at the bottom, handles with a round section and vertical near the neck, modelled with light clay. Their history spans 200 years, after which Greek italic or republican era Roman shapes substituted them. The style of this container testifies the real Etruscan "matrix" more than any other vase imported or imitation Greek and oriental vases, found in various necropolis. 

The Phoenician and Punic amphoras

After the VII century B.C., the amphoras of Phoenician Punic tradition, that have nothing in common with the Greek tradition, are common in the Mediterranean; they are connected, eventually, to the very ancient ones from Canaan. In the texts there isn’t any distinction between the Phoenician shapes that are from the motherland, and the Punic ones, made by the Phoenician settlers.

The Phoenicians were a population who had origins in Canaan and lived on the Lebanon coasts, adjoining the Jews. The words "Phoinikes" for the population and "Phoinike" for the area are of Greek origin and derive from the name phoinix (purple red), which was the substance produced by the murex, a kind of shellfish, used to dye clothes, art in which the Phoenicians were famous.

Le anfore FeniciePhoenicia included many autonomous city-states, like Tiro, Ugarit, Sidone, Biblo; the inhabitants were expert sailors and traders. Punic is the Roman word that indicated the Phoenicians of the colonies like Carthago, Mozia, Tharros, with whom they came in contact. This being stated, it is possible to understand how difficult it is to distinguish the Phoenician amphoras from the Punic; we can only presume that the more ancient shapes can almost certainly originate in the motherland, whilst the latest, found in the context of Roman amphoras, are definitely Punic. An existing list of Phoenician amphoras is the one made by an American study committee from Philadelphia University, guided by Cynthia J. Eiseman, on the Ponticello wreck (Reggio Calabria).

Phoenician wreckage is hard to find because their history has been short, or for many "unofficial" recuperations. The amphoras type 1.3.4 of the list above are of a varying height between 65 and 67 centimetres with a capacity of 20-21 litres, an elongated cone shape, very accentuated shoulder, handles that start from the neck's edge and arrive to the middle between joint and shoulder (VIII century B.C.). Other shapes of type 2 look like long cigars, with no edge, 90 centimetres high, with the handles attached to the body and go from V to III century B.C. according to the capacity and the height. It would be very interesting to carry out further studies on various specimen of the Museum of Mozia, a Punic colony in Sicily, where together with lots of Phoenician Punic amphoras, can be found there is an amphora, certainly of Canaan origin, of a more recent shape (VIII century B.C.); it maybe the only specimen existing in Italy and not divulgated.

Le anfore Fenicie di Cipro

The Phoenician amphora of Ciprus

The Punic specimen characterized by cylindrical shapes, rounder or more tapering, similar to an elongated cigar, with the neck's edge inexistent in the more archaic (Phoenician) types or ring and funnel shape in the later types, with semicircular handles united to the belly. These Punic amphoras turned in one piece with the addition of the handles, were impermeabilized with fir tree resin, smeared in the inside. With time the shapes changed, becoming longer, stumpy, some even oval or spherical shaped, but the characteristic of the small stick shaped handle attached to the belly and of the round foot was conserved until the late Roman Empire. Regarding about Phoenician and Punic amphoras, you will note that those recovered from the Ponticello wreck and already described in the types 134 are of non traditional shape, but strangely similar to the Greek.

The Greek archaic amphores (to be translated)

The Greek archaic amphore, so named to distinguish it from more recent types, si inquadra nin the VII century A.D., when the Greeks began their expansion.

anforeÉ di orlo poco marcato, arrotolato a ciambella, il corpo a forma di trottola larga, con il puntale a bottone; le anse partono da sotto l'orlo del collo e, arrotondate, terminano a metà fra il raccordo e la spalla. Resti consistenti e colli di queste forme li ho visti vicino a Capo Lillibeo (Sicilia sud Occidentale - provincia di Trapani). Ricordiamo poi le anfore massaliote, fabbricate nella colonia greca di Massalia, odierna Marsiglia, fondata dai Greci della Focide; le loro caratteristiche sono così simili a quelle delle greco arcaiche da essere spesso confuse con queste.

Dall'anfora greco arcaica si giunge alla Romana di età repubblicana, attraverso una serie di passaggi ben descritti dall'archeologo francese Jean Pierre Joncheray. L'anfora greco arcaica del VII secolo a.C. si evolve nelle sue forme nella greco recente (V -IV secolo) e poi nella greco italica (III secolo a.C.) usata in età ellenistica dai coloni greci in Italia e adottata in seguito dai Romani; mi è capitato di vedere delle greco italiche con bolli Romani. Il passaggio continua con la greco italica di transizione ( II secolo a.C.) e arriva alla Romana di età repubblicana 18).


(to be translated) L'orlo dapprima a ciambella circolare o piatto e orizzontale della greco arcaica, si sviluppa e si inclina progressivamente nell'anfora greco italica, greco italica di transizione, fino diventare verticale nella forma Romana. Il collo si allunga: dai 15 centimetri si passa ai 40 nei più recenti, le anse si allungano seguendo il collo. La pancia a forma di trottola, nei tipi più antichi, diventa un'ogiva sempre più affusolata. La lunghezza totale arriva a 120 centimetri: É forma tipica dell'anfora Romana di età repubblicana varietà Dressel lA (II Sec. a.C.), lB (I secolo a.C.) e 1C (I secolo a.C.), conosciute come anfora di Marsiglia, anfora di Albenga, anfora di Capo Mele, dal nome dei luoghi dove sono state principalmente rinvenute. Questo tipo è detta vinaria, per distinguerla da quella di forma più panciuta, chiamata olearia (Dressel 6).

Comunque le anfore vinarie, come è stato constatato dai residui del contenuto, portavano olio e, viceversa, molte olearie contenevano vino.

The Greek italic amphores (to be translated)

Delle anfore di tradizione greca fanno parte quelle fabbricate un po' in tutto il Mediterraneo con i caratteri delle antiche greco orientali (IV-III secolo a.C.). Sono greche sicuramente le anfore con il sigillo di Rodi, la più grande isola delle Sporadi, che rappresenta una bella rosa stilizzata con la datazione. Hanno l'orlo a ciambella sottile, le anse diritte a sezione circolare, collo cilindrico allungato e pancia molto affusolata. Un tipo di rodia, caratteristica del I secolo a.C, possiede collo cilindrico, pancia molto affusolata senza spalla e le anse a sezione tonda si allargano verso l'alto e formano un angolo acuto con una protome all'apice. Riguardo alle anfore costruite in Italia ad ansa bifida di tradizione di Cos (Dressel II-IV), vi rimando per le notizie storiche a quanto ho scritto in precedenza sulle derrate alimentari. Questo tipo ha orlo a ciambella, collo corto, anse bifide ad angolo acuto, raccordo del collo e spalle molto marcati. Se l'impasto contiene grani di quarzo provengono da Terragona (Spagna). 

The imperial amphorae

With the Empire's accession and the progressive Roman conquests, the original models are diversified. In fact, the populations that were integrated by the Roman domination made containers with different shapes that looked more or less like the original Republican model, but some characteristics changed according to the different habits. For example, we remember the imperial Roman amphoras coming from Betica, a Spanish region, that contained wine and oil, as well as the Gallic and Istrian amphoras.

Regarding the amphoras from Betica and the spherical ones (from I to III century A.D.), they have a full ring edge, short neck, spherical belly and massive round section handles disposed along the neck; they could have various dimensions. The amphoras of Letania (north-east Spain) have a very vertical edge larger at the bottom, oval belly, and band shaped massive handles with a groove in the middle, stumpy foot and cob with quartz and black granules. The amphoras of Salamoia (Southern Spain) have a flat edge, pear shaped belly with no shoulder, neck larger at the bottom corolla shaped and a massive foot of very large dimensions. They transported garum…a fish sauce much appreciated by the Roman palates.

 Anfora spagnola della Letania (I - II Sec. d.C.)Anfora da salamoia (I - II Sec. d.C.)Anfora piriformi da salamoia (I - II Sec. d.C.)

In the III century A.D., you find some amphoras with flat bottoms with round edges, short necks and marked shoulders: they are amphoras from Gaul (shape 47 of the Pelichet). A particular description regards the African amphoras that from the I century A.D. onwards were made mostly in Tunisia (fig.26-C-D-E-F). They transported oil and wheat from Africa to that enormous consumer stomach that was Rome. These containers are a mixture of Greek archaic tradition or recent Greek, or more rarely Roman, in the upper part, edge, neck and handles and the Punic tradition in the cylindrical body. This too is proof that during domination there is integration and a mixing of different habits. The African amphoras are distinguished principally in two types: big and small. The chronological period of their appearance goes from the strengthening of commercial traffic (III century B.C.) to the Arabian conquest.

Anfora africana ( III - V Sec. d.C.) Anfora di tradizione Cos nella parte superiore (III - V Sec. d.C.) Anfora della Gallia o della Spagna (III - V Sec. d.C.)

They have very different edge shape: ring or larger at the bottom, short neck, not very marked shoulders with no corner, long cigar shaped belly, or cylindrical, larger or narrower, at the top or bottom. The handles attached to the neck are the main distinction from the Punic amphoras: the foot is longer in the narrower shapes, little button shaped or sharp in the larger shapes.

After the V century the amphoras are more rare, it is still possible to find very round Byzantine or Saracen shapes, with neck without shoulders or vaguely hinted at, with no foot, big handles.The history of these containers could end with the Byzantine and Saracen amphoras after the V century A.D. In the modern era, in spite of plastic and other containers, they haven't completely disappeared; on the contrary they are still used for the transport of liquids overland. In Southern Italy, in Tunisia and in Egypt you can still see carts full of amphoras made and baked as in ancient times. The easier and essential acts of the mankind don't have history, but they follow it in its path across the centuries, always in the same way, that's where the need of finding the origin of our past begins.

Dolium (I Sec. a.C.)The Dolia

The Dolia are big jars with no handles, closed with a terracotta lid, often recovered with the Dressel amphoras 24 of I century B.C. They usually contained wine; the edge is ring shaped, attached to the spherical shaped body. The large dimensions characterize them. Some were branded and reach 2 metres in height with a diameter of 1,80 metres. The most famous wreck containing these "big jars" is the one of Diano Marina (Imperia), where they were disposed in two parallel rows. Some have been recovered from the sea in front of Quercianella, Piombino, Monte Argentario, others have been recovered at Cap d'Antibes.

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Created: Monday, March 12, 2007; Last updated, Wednesday, February 11, 2015
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