My dear nurse – pour out for me into amphoras some of that agreeable wine. — Homer, The Odyssey
Few things are as graceful as an amphora. The narrow base, gently swelling sides and tapered neck, the arching handles. When I think of amphoras, I dream…of dusty warehouses with row after row of clay vessels holding wine and olive oil. Of shards in an archeological site. Amphorae and antiquity go together. Now, wine comes in bottles, boxes, and bags and olive oil in glass and plastic bottles. It’s hard to imagine how heavy a full amphora must have weighed, but lifting them must have required a bit of muscle. There were ornate ones and others simple and utilitarian. The Romans probably also stored their famous fish sauce in amphoras. I decided I needed some more facts about these vessels and, according to one of my favorite online encyclopedias,
- “An amphora (plural: amphorae or amphoras) is a type of ceramic vase with two handles and a long neck narrower than the body.
- The word amphora is Latin, derived from the Greek amphoreus,
- while some were under 30 centimetres (12 in) high –
- the smallest were called amphoriskoi (literally “little amphorae”).
- Most were around 45 centimetres (18 in) high.
- There was a significant degree of standardisation in some variants;
- the wine amphora held a standard measure of about 39 litres (41 US qt),
- giving rise to the amphora quadrantal as a unit of measure in the Roman Empire.
- In all, around 66 distinct types of amphora have been identified.”
My! That’s ten and a quarter gallons. Heavy, especially considering varying weights of the contents. In addition, at 18″ high, they needed to be placed in roomy pantry areas in homes. One thing I’ve never understood is how they were used. They must have been unwieldy, given their size and height, so how did people use them? I decided to look it up and learned that the Romans placed an amphora in a wicker holder that raised it up off the floor, keeping it cooler. The wine was then ladled out. I find that there is a certain magic about contemplating ancient pottery such as this. Who knows how many people handled a particular amphora? The maker, delivery person, house help, cooks, and consumers. And consider their age. Yet, we are still looking at them in museums and photographs. Another bit of magic I came across was a video of Dan, a Yorkshire potter from Ingleton Pottery. The video shows him creating a modern-day amphora. It’s incredible, partly because his actions have been so condensed it looks like he’s conjuring up the vessel. He gracefully throws a lovely amphora and adds pulled handles. The next time you pour a little oil into a cruet or wine into a glass, think back to ancient times and the amphora.