Roman Transport Amphora

Roman Transport Amphora

Story by Louisa Hormann

Museum and Heritage Studies, 2016

Object of Interest

The Roman Transport Amphora is the first artefact you will see upon arriving at the Classics Museum. Standing at just under 1 metre in height (92.7 cm), its sheer size, and a number of other startling features, make this object of continuing interest to scholars and students alike.

The Amphora

Purpose and Design

The name is derived from the Greek word amphiphoreous, meaning 'carried on both sides' and amphorae were designed to be carried by one or two individuals at a time. These two-handled, ceramic coarseware storage containers originate from at least as early as the Neolithic Period. They were used extensively for the transport and storage of wine, olive oil, marine products, preserved fruits and other commodities throughout the ancient Mediterranean.

Structural Features

While other amphorae are often highly decorated, transport amphorae are plain and unglazed, and were specifically designed for marine transport, each holding up to under half a ton. Transport amphorae shared these common features that enabled both pouring and stacking in ships:

Two opposed handles; thick walls for strength; and a tapering base (usually with a short peg, though some had flat bottoms), allowed the amphorae to be stacked safely one upon the other.

Shipwrecked

Incidentally, this amphora has its own natural decoration: white, calcified marine encrustation.

This suggests that the amphora came from a ship that sank in transit. You'll see that one half is more heavily encrusted; the underside was most likely submerged in sand, while the front side became home to molluscs.

Decorated by the Sea

Mediterranean Trade and Manufacture

Surviving examples of transport amphorae – especially from shipwrecks – offer rich archaeological data on the nature, scale, and range of the Roman inter-regional commodities trade. Design and production clues can reveal where, when and how such amphorae were used.

Dates and debate

This Roman transport amphora is a Dressel Type 6 (based on Heinrich Dressel's classification scheme), dating it to around 36 AD. Although this classification suggests it is a Roman wine amphora, its original use remains unclear – debate runs rife among Victoria staff, some of whom believe it once held garum (fish sauce).

Making an Amphora Vase on the Potter's Wheel

"Making Throwing a Pottery Greek Roman Amphora Vase on the wheel" produced by Ingleton Pottery, 1 March 2009

Production and Location

Roman amphorae were made from terracotta and manufactured on a potter's wheel, manually turned by the potter or an apprentice. The belly of this amphora was made in sections, followed by the neck, the rim, and the handles – you can see the seams upon close inspection.

Fabric (colour) analysis is used to differentiate between amphorae of the same form but produced in different areas (the best designs were imitated). The fabric of this particular piece indicates that it may have originated in Asia Minor, but this particular colour was also found in parts of northern Italy.

The amphora was acquired by Victoria University of Wellington from Harvey's Wine Museum, Bristol in 2012.

Artefact Description

Summary: Roman Transport Amphora. Dressel Type 6, around AD 36 (VUW Classics 2012.1)

Height: 92.7cm

Fabric: Asia Minor or northern Italy

Provenance: acquired from Harvey's Wine Museum, Bristol

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