By Stefano Borelli
Professor, what do amphorae tell an archaeologist?
They can tell us more than any other object of the ancient world: more than marble, painting, jewelry, glass. The study of wine trade has in fact been at the heart of archaeological studies over the past fifty years, focusing on the ancient Mediterranean area and its impact on part of the western hemisphere. The study of wine is also the keystone to understanding the evolution, zenith and decline of the Roman Empire.
In other words, wine is one of the great protagonists of antiquity?
Wine was not only central to ancient trades in the Mediterranean. Objects related to wine have been found in the Baltic countries, as well as Roman vessels containing amphorae in the sea off Dublin, in southern India, in south-eastern Africa.
When was the culture of wine born?
Drinking wine became popular in a trans-Mediterranean dimension around the seventh century BC, thanks to the Greeks who started trading with many different populations, taking their amphorae with them. In Lazio and Etruria they exchanged these for metals. Traces of this first and oldest “era” of drinking were also found in Burgundy, in an area called Vix. Here the famous “crater” was found in the tomb of a princess, a huge bronze vessel dated around 540 BC used to mix wine. This detail shows that the Celts were also part of this culture.
Was Rome one of the protagonists of this period?
With the growth of Rome, the production of wine became an industry. Monte de’ Cocci (the hill of potsherds) in Testaccio, Rome, is made up of the remains of broken amphorae, to remind us of this fact. During the period from the first century BC to the first century AD everyone was involved in the world of wine: from the shepherd living in the most remote village in the Abruzzi to the farmer who worked the fields in the south of Italy.
When did the study of amphorae become so important?
The study of amphorae began with an analysis of their handles and makers’ marks which take us back to the time of the first commercial routes between North Africa and Italy, between the eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, up to the city of Pondicherry. Today these studies have become very sophisticated, with microscopic analysis of the clay in order to understand not only the place where industrial production originated, but also the different styles. At the end of the Roman Empire, the most beautiful decorated amphorae came from Vigo on the north-western coast of Spain. These amphorae were also found in Tintagel Castle in western Cornwall in the UK, where in the fifth century AD there were Britons who still believe that they were part of Rome, in spite of the fact that the Anglo-Saxons had already conquered much of the island With all certainty, King Arthur would sit drinking wine in the castle, while the Roman Empire was collapsing.
Did the amphorae have different shapes and qualities, as well as different prices?
The first amphorae originated in Greece, then the production spread to Etruria, while the most famous ones were produced in the Roman colony of Cosa, near Orbetello, Italy. Subsequently, most of the cheaper models were produced in North Arica and, during the period of maximum development of the Empire, in the eastern Mediterranean. As for ships, 500 to 1,000 amphorae were found in every wreck at the bottom of the sea. Many of these were of different shapes, very large in the Republican period, taller and thinner to facilitate stowage in the Imperial period. They had a ceramic or wooden stopper wrapped in cloth.
What do the amphorae found in the tombs tell us?
In the tombs of the period preceding Christianity objects were placed that would accompany people in the afterlife on their journey to the reign of the gods. In the grave of a middle-class person there would be a bed and various objects, including amphorae. Drinking was an important aspect of this journey, and since the beginning of the Republican period glasses for wine were also to be found in most tombs.
Does the writing on the amphorae mean anything?
In the late Republican period and in the early years of the Empire they were stamped by the companies that produced them. The stamps are very clear and the manufacturers can be identified. The production of amphorae then continued on a large scale until the sixth century AD and continued significantly until the seventh century. Twenty years ago, during excavations, a type of amphora used in the seventh century in the Coptic Egyptian monasteries, and in the eighth and ninth century in the monasteries of Palestine and the Byzantine Empire, was discovered. Finally, let us not forget that in the Middle Ages Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome in the year 800. He and his Franks reintroduced the tradition of drinking wine at the table in Italy and in the rest of
Who is Richard Hodges?
Richard Hodges is an internationally renowned archaeologist born in Bath in the United Kingdom. A medievalist, he directed among other things the archaeological excavations in San Vincenzo al Volturno in Molise. He is President of the American University of Rome and President of Loveitaly, a non-profit association dedicated to protecting the Italian cultural heritage and supporting restoration projects throughout Italy.