A: Height 11.5×5 cm;
B: Height 10.5×5 cm;
C: Height 10×6 cm.
Date: Second to third century AD
These three clay amphora lids made assume the shapes of small amphorae and are frequently called “anforischi.”
Ceramic amphorae, the main containers used for maritime transportation in the Mediterranean, could contain the most diverse fresh or pickled products – olives, shellfish, fish, fruit, honey, milk, or even wine, oil, fruit preserves, or fish sauce (garum).
Amphora lids were fundamental for the preservation of the food in an air-tight container. In most cases, amphorae were closed with lids made of wood, cork, or ceramic, which were covered with cement (pozzolana) or pitch. Other times, green pine was stuck in the neck so that it could diffuse its aroma into the contents of the vessel. Amphorischi, which were lodged in the upper part of the neck of an amphora were less common overall, but most frequently were used to close amphorae originating in Baetica, in Spain.
Between the first and the second centuries CE millions of hectoliters of wine were transported throughout the Roman Empire every year. It is estimated that 22,000 tons of olive oil, also imported, were consumed.
These goods were transported in amphorae whose shapes were customized to the product they contained. Amphorae with a rounded body were mainly used for the transportation of oil, which had to be exported in large quantities in order to guarantee good economic returns. Amphorae with a narrow body, whose interiors were rain-proofed with aromatic sap, were used to transport wine. Other smaller vessels were destined to contain garum.
The tapered shape of amphorae allowed them to be stacked vertically in overlapping layers within a ship. The spaces between vessels were filled with small bands to prevent the amphorae from touching each other (and breaking) during the journey. A vessel’s size was determined by the amount of the amphorae transported.
The exterior of an amphora bore a painted label (pittacium), which indicated the origin of the wine, the name of the manufacturer, and the consular official in charge. However, the amphorae themselves often bore a stamp, a trademark of square or rectangular shape that was impressed by the manufacturer before firing the piece. Usually this mark it was located on the handles and/or on the cement seals.
The shape of amphorae that were most widespread during the second to first centuries BCE were the Dressel I, which were mainly used in the export of Tyrrhenian (Italian) wines. These were widely exported across Europe (even to England and across major rivers, such as the Rhine and the Rhone) and across the Mediterranean (examples have been found in north-western Africa).
The Dressel 2/4 amphora, which resembles a Greek amphora, was used in the Roman Republican and Imperial eras to hold wine produced in Italy and then in Spain. This wine mimicked the famous wine of Cos (derived from grapes immersed in sea water) so, fittingly, the amphorae that contained this wine also imitated a Greek vessel (Catone in the De agricultura).
Amphorae were akin to our “returnable bottles” and many were recycled or reused in the sites where their contents were consumed. Because of this, we can trace the spread of amphorae and reconstruct the ancient wine and other trades.