1. Introduction to Roman amphoras

1.1. Typology

There is no unified typological series covering all amphora forms, and the standard labels are drawn from a combination of Dressel's 1899 typology, vessels from site-based typologies (Haltern, Camulodunum, Carthage etc.) and the typologies developed for amphoras from particular sources (e.g. Beltrán for Spanish amphoras, Gauloise for Gaulish, the Africana or Tripolitana series for North African material). The same form may be referred to under different names by different authors, following regional traditions or personal tastes. Some recently identified amphora categories have been named after a published specimen in an existing type-series or site report (e.g. Richborough 527, Kingsholm 117).

The petrology of amphora fabrics demonstrates that some classes were produced simultaneously in many regions, and some exported types became widely copied. The complete identification of a vessel takes account of both fabric and form.

1.2. Contents

Long lists have been published of the many commodities that have been recorded as the contents of amphoras (Callender 1965, 37-41) but these should not obscure the fact that it is the bulk movement of wine and olive-oil that is responsible for most amphoras recovered from archaeological sites. Other preserved grape, olive and fish products are of lesser significance, and the more exotic fruits, vegetables and non-food items encountered can never have been of more than minor interest.

The shifting patterns of amphora supply from different regions - and hence the trade in the commodities they contain - are an invaluable resource for the study of Classical agriculture. The successive rise and fall of production and export from Italy, Iberia and the African provinces is reflected in amphora assemblages throughout the Empire.

The principal mechanism behind the movement of these amphoras was shipping, and the archaeological benefit of this is the recovery of many amphora cargoes from wrecks around the Mediterranean basin, and more rarely, in northern waters. Indeed it is often a spread of amphora sherds on the sea-bed that is the first sign that a wreck lies beneath.

1.3. Fabric and technology

Most early work on amphoras tended to concentrate on the form of the vessel, with any fabric description confined to a simple note of colour. The detailed petrological description of fabrics is now central to the study of amphoras and much recent work has concentrated on this aspect of the material.

1.4. Stamps, graffiti and dipinti

Stamps and dipinti - painted inscriptions on the vessel surface - are key elements of amphora studies and many large corpora have been published, starting with the catalogues in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum of the 19th century. Stamps are used to trace the products of particular workshops or production areas and they can be dated, although rarely with as much precision as samian stamps.

Painted inscriptions have been studied in great detail and contain much information on the contents, shipping and marketing of amphoras. These inscriptions are often very faint and may only be visible under specialized lighting conditions, but their presence should always be considered when studying (or cleaning) collections of amphora sherds. A description of the forty-four dipinti on amphoras from Britain found down to the end of 1986 has been published in The Roman Inscriptions of Britain volume 2, fascicule 6 (Collingwood et al. 1994) as RIB 2492. No less that seventeen of these (38%) are from excavations in London, perhaps a consequence of the extensive waterlogged deposits along the Thames waterfront and in the Walbrook valley. Pre- and post-firing graffiti on amphoras in Britain are catalogued as RIB 2493 and 2494.

1.5. The capacity of amphoras

The capacity of any complete amphora should be measured and recorded. These figures are of great value in calculating the quantities of the foodstuffs represented by the sherds in an assemblage, and it is also evident that many amphora types were produced in multiples of one of the standard Roman units of volume. The modius, although normally a dry measure, was commonly used to record the volume of amphoras in the Western Empire. It is roughly equivalent to two imperial gallons. The graffiti and dipinti referred to above often record the volume of the amphora in modii and a smaller unit, the sextarius - approximately a pint. The Latin word amphora is also a unit of volume, used to describe the capacity of shipping. In the Eastern Empire the system is complicated by the use of local systems of measures. Some amphoras seem to be multiples of the choe, equivalent to the Roman congius.

Measure Volume (litres)
congius= 6 sextarii3.28l
modius= 16 sextarii8.75l
amphora= 3 modii26.26l

1.6. References

The bibliography of amphora studies is extensive. For general introductions to the theory and practice of `amphorology': Peacock and Williams 1986; Laubenheimer 1990; Sealey 1985; Grace 1986; brief descriptions of principal types, with fabrics, dating and some distribution maps: Peacock and Williams 1986; Sciallano and Sibella 1991; more obscure varieties of the later Roman period and eastern provinces are covered by Riley 1979 and Keay 1984. The earlier studies by Callender 1965 and Beltrán Lloris 1970 remain valuable.

The most thorough studies of the principal amphora types circulating in the north-western Roman provinces, including Britain, will be found in the thoroughly researched catalogues of the material from Augst (Switzerland) by Stefanie Martin-Kilcher (1987; 1994). These lavishly produced volumes cover all aspects of the typology, chronology and economic significance of the Augst amphora assemblage, and include a splendid set of colour photographs of the principal fabrics (cross-referenced in the Atlas pages as Augst TG 00).

F. Laubenheimer has compiled an annotated amphora bibliography, published in the Bibliographies Thématiques en Archéologie series (Laubenheimer 1991). M.-B. Carre (1995) describes a database system developed at the University of Aix-en-Provence, holding records of amphora stamps which, it is intended, can be distributed on computer disks.

Reports from the Ancient Monuments Laboratory in London by D. F. Williams and others contain interim assessments of important collections of amphoras from sites in Britain, prior to the publication of the final site reports.

The track of amphora studies through the 1970s and 1980s can be followed through a series of conference proceedings, published in the Collection de l'École Française de Rome and elsewhere as Baldacci et al. 1972; Vallet 1977; Badalona 1987; Lenoir et al. 1989; Laubenheimer, (ed) 1992). The catalogue of Roman shipwrecks compiled by Parker (1992) contains a wealth of data on the transport and distribution of amphoras. For scientific analyses of residues on amphoras see Heron and Pollard 1988; Rothschild-Boros 1981. Examples of the application of amphora data to economic history will be found in Sealey 1985, 113-51; Garnsey et al. 1983; Tchernia 1986; Fulford 1987; the papers by Carandini, Morel, Tchernia and Whittaker in Lenoir et al. 1989, 505-39 give vent to some of the major themes and problems.

1.7. Bibliography


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Last updated: Wed Oct 9 1996