University of Southampton

Roman Amphorae: a digital resource

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This is the Amphora Project developed by the Archaeology group at the University of Southampton.

The aim of this resource is to provide an online introductory resource for the study of Roman amphorae. In the Roman empire amphorae were pottery containers used for the non-local transport of agricultural products. Their fragments litter archaeological sites of all kinds on land and at sea and have been a subject of serious study for over 100 years. They are crucially important to archaeologists in providing direct evidence for inter-regional and long-distance movement of agricultural products within the empire, and have been an important source of data in the increasingly sophisticated debates about the scale and structure of the Roman economy over the last thirty years. While the study of amphorae also encompasses the stamps, painted inscriptions (tituli picti) and production sites, this website concentrates upon the containers alone.

Recent research means that we now know more about the origins, contents and trading patterns of amphorae than ever before. Nevertheless, the field is a highly complex one, particularly for the non-specialist. Large numbers of amphora sherds in museum basements and on archaeological sites across Europe attest to the scale of the amphora trade. Furthermore, research in recent years has revealed that there are very considerable regional variations in the form and clay fabric of amphorae across the Roman empire. Finally, although there is an established framework of study for Roman amphorae, contrasting academic traditions have led to significant differences in approach to their study, particularly in recent years. This is an issue that has been exacerbated by the publication of new data and studies in journals and conference volumes that are often difficult for even the specialist to locate. There are thus only a few archaeologists working in any one country, or region, who can readily relate their finds to published material in another, with any degree of confidence. All of this makes it difficult to gain an overall sense of the full range of amphora production in the Roman provinces.

The ideal solution would be to "democratize" amphora studies so that the same range of information could be within reach of all scholars irrespective of country, the quality of libraries or the availability of comparative material. This would allow better informed identifications of amphora finds on archaeological sites, leading to the unsuspected "appearance" of new types in different regions for the first time and, as a consequence, a better appreciation of the flows of trade across the provinces of the Roman empire than is possible at the moment. This remains as yet an unattainable dream given the sheer range of types and fabrics. However, this website is intended as a first step in this direction.

The established amphora specialist will be familiar with much of what is presented here. This is because it is aimed at archaeologists unfamiliar with amphorae, curators in museums and students interested in finding their way around the subject of Roman amphorae. Its key feature is that it provides consistently recorded details of form and fabric for each type in a way that will allow for a much broader range of possible comparanda for any one form or fragment than has hitherto been possible. It is hoped that it will thus provide sufficient basic information for the non-specialist to be able to navigate their way around the main amphora types and their often confusing naming systems, discover the main works of reference associated with them, and attempt preliminary identifications of amphora sherds.

The Project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Reasearch Council (AHRC) and has been produced in collaboration with the Archaeology Data Service. Many thanks to both organisations.