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Standardization in ancient times

The amphora: precursor to the ISO container

They may be discovered spectacularly preserved in ancient shipwrecks on the seafloor or as potsherds requiring painstaking examination. Either way, amphorae are the quintessential everyday objects of antiquity. Highly distinctive in shape, their characteristics mean they are often regarded as the precursors to today’s shipping containers. Find out more about stacking techniques, mounds of amphorae fragments and the role played by the vessels in the ancient Roman conquest of distant lands.

The word amphora (plural: amphorae) comes from the Ancient Greek “ἀμφορεύς” (amphoreus), meaning two-handled clay vessel. Additionally, these jars were bulbous in shape and had narrow necks. While there were also several metal and glass amphorae, the clay models were produced in their millions in ancient times. The two handles were originally designed to make the vessels easier to carry. Amphorae were used for storing and transporting food and other goods; vases they were certainly not.

Tapered for stacking

Another characteristic feature of these ancient earthenware artefacts, besides their two handles, is their downward taper. This means they cannot stand upright unsupported. While this may seem illogical at first glance, they were given their shape for good reason. Discoveries on shipwrecks have revealed that the amphorae were stacked in several layers in the round bilge hulls, with the tapered bottoms of the layer above sitting in the spaces between the shoulders of the layer below. This interlocking type of arrangement served to practically distribute the load in such a way that each layer of amphorae only added the equivalent weight of one fourth of an individual amphora at each load point – an ideal structural solution.

Standard measure, locally produced

Amphorae were used in the ancient world for storing and transporting oil, olives, wine, fish sauce, honey, grain, dates and other dried fruit, and much more besides. They were produced in the same regions as the goods they transported, including wine- and olive-growing districts. The most common jars had different volumes, depending on their contents, holding anything from five to 50 liters. But some large, bulbous amphorae carrying 70 liters of olive oil could sometimes weigh up to 100 kilograms.
No wonder that the Roman amphora (26.2 liters) came to be used as one of the main units for measuring liquid volume. While researchers believe standardization first began to gain currency in North Africa in the eighth century BC, it was not until the Hellenistic and Roman periods in particular that the phenomenon became mainstream.

Archaeological application

As already mentioned, the jars were typically produced in the same places as the goods they were to be filled with, locations from which they could be most easily transported to their markets and other intended destinations. This represents an incredible stroke of luck for archaeologists, as they can use the shape and origin of the amphorae to determine the products they transported and the trade routes along which they travelled. Other key manufacturing features providing helpful clues as to the period or region from which an amphora originates include its clay mixture, its firing temperature and any stamps or carvings on it. The verifiable development in the shape of the jars over time is particularly useful to archaeologists when it comes to dating the artifacts. And researchers do not have to wait for spectacular discoveries on shipwrecks either.

A mound of amphorae

Many jars were used as disposable containers and discarded after transportation. Monte Testaccio, a mound in Rome, for example, consists almost entirely of amphora fragments. Other vessels were repurposed, as cremation urns, for example.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, amphorae continued to be produced well into the Middle Ages in Spain and the Byzantine Empire, and were even being made in Britain during the early modern period. While they still followed in the ancient amphorae tradition, the later vessels had rounded, rather than pointed bottoms, and were ultimately used far less widely and frequently. This is considered indicative of changing state structures and shrinking economies. It also reflected the fragmentation taking place among European states and a decline in international trade zones.

Precursor to the ISO container?

But one area in which even the disposable amphorae can claim to have beaten today’s go-to ISO containers to the punch is the (albeit ancient-style) industrial mass production and standardization of transport vessels. And this also applies to some extent to their stackability. Another interesting question would be whether a primitive version of the modern-day pallet was developed in ancient times to move the amphorae around. Any discovery of this kind would undoubtedly be a historical sensation.

One thing is for certain – these containers of antiquity were extremely useful for packaging agricultural produce for the mass market and transporting it efficiently over great distances. Standard jars that could be carried easily by a single individual or were sufficiently versatile for transporting on land, by river or by sea, for instance, helped turn the Mediterranean into a thriving trade zone. But this wasn’t the only part of the world where these highly functional vessels proved their worth. Researchers have clearly documented, for instance, that a historical increase in amphorae production in southern Spain is attributable to the need to supply legionaries with olive oil during the Roman conquest of Germania.

A winning formula then and now

The success of the amphorae is an undisputed fact. Discoveries made in India show that the vessels were even used to deliver goods beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. Nowadays, amphorae are used primarily for ornamental purposes – as vases in living rooms and gardens, for example. But there are a few individual instances where the jars still play an important practical role, such as in the production of amphora wine. This form of maturation is especially popular for biodynamic wines. And then there are sulfurized varieties, such as Guevri wine from Georgia, which are often pressed in special amphorae. But that’s a whole different story...