Ancient Roman amphoras were a highly successful means of transporting foodstuffs such as oil, olives, nuts, garum and of course wine.
Their shapes have been catalogued and help us understand provenance and trade routes throughout the Roman era.
The Monte Testaccio hill in Rome is entirely made of broken amphora shards…
Ancient Roman wine was frequently transported in amphorae (amphoras) for trade and storage. Amphoras underwent a number of different shapes according to the period they were manufactured and the region where they were produced. The materials used for manufacturing them (the clay) also differed from region to region. Clearly there were amphoras for different uses, for example, transport of Roman wine, olives or other products such as the loved “garum” sauce.
Having been catalogued by the likes of Mr. Dressel in the 19th century, Roman amphoras give us an indication of product type carried and age. For example when amphorae are found in a ship wreck they give us an extra piece of the statistical jigsaw puzzle showing which shapes (and products) were traded between which countries at what time.
Extremely meticulous work by archaeologists since the 19th century (beginning with Dressel) has allowed the different amphora shapes and types to be catalogued according to place and period of manufacture. This in turn has allowed the provenance of produce to be tracked and trade routes to be mapped. Some assumptions have to be made of course, for example, that wine was always transported in wine amphoras and vice versa that wine amphoras were always carrying wine! Not absolutely true but sufficiently so to enable a statistically representative picture to be created.
A further factor in analysing trade routes and consequently the economic history of Rome or indeed of wine producing centres such as Pompeii is “quality”. Whilst we might imagine amphorae being shipped abroad there is the further element of wine being shipped in from abroad and the market segment for which the produce might be intended: would a local public house or the military, presumably the Roman mass market, been drinking the quality vintage Falernian wine? Likely not.
The mass market surely placed great pressure on production costs of the products that it consumed and as such placed pressure not only on the type of vines but also on other aspects of the production, such as the size and efficiency of production facilities, the quantity and quality of slaves, transport costs and so on: all those elements which constitute the production and supply chain costs, including the cost of transport and storage.
By and large it can be said that, Archeological finds and amphoras give a snap shot of the wines which were worth transporting significant distances but less so of the wines which were produced locally and satisfied the local mass markets.