Unlocking Our Collections: Roman Amphora

This type of very large amphora is sometimes referred to as having a ‘globular’ shape, but is classified by archaeologists as a ‘Dressel 20’. Manufactured in Spain from the late 1st century AD until the 3rd century AD, this type of container was used to export large quantities of olive oil. A large number of them have been found across the Roman Empire.

The discovery of Monte Testaccio in Rome drastically expanded our understanding of the manufacture and use of these vessels. This large mound to the south of the city is an ancient Roman rubbish dump made almost entirely from broken amphora – estimated to contain the fragments of around 53 million vessels.

So why ‘Dressel 20’? The German archaeologist Heinrich Dressel (1845 – 1920) excavated the Monte Testaccio mound from 1872 and through his involvement with this unique site, developed a typology for classifying Roman amphora by their date, shape and use. We know that Monte Testaccio contains large numbers of amphora fragments from Dressel 20 vessels like this one. This suggests that their size and shape made them difficult to reuse or break down, so they were simply thrown away. The potential information we can gather from amphora such as this can be enormous, with commercial information such as the origin, destination and contents of a vessel sometimes stamped or painted on to the handles. This type of inscription can create a wider picture of trade, production and demand for goods across the Roman world.

Sadly, we do not know how this amphora came to be part of the Society’s collections, or where it was found. However, although this is a story it cannot currently tell us, there are many things that it still can.

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