Ancient Roman Olearia Amphora


Thousands of amphorae were used during the Roman Empire for the storage of food, and especially for the transport of oils, wines and fish by sea or river.

Their base often ended in a peak, which allowed them to be fixed comfortably in the sand, where they were gathered and prepared for subsequent transport. They were then loaded onto ships to their destination. The handles were placed on the same neck of the pot to be held and handled by one person. They were provided with a closing cap that prevented spillage once filled and also served as a seal to prevent them from being opened.  This could be ceramic, welded clay putty or cork.  It was usual for each recipient to have a seal identifying the owner, which allowed them to know not only who they belonged to but also where they came from, or sometimes the possible reference to complying with the tax regulations. The average capacity of these vessels used to be about 50 L and weighed empty up to about 30 kg.

The oil amphorae themselves, called olearias, only had to be used once, due to the predisposition of the oil to decompose in these containers and to acquire those, easily bad tastes and smells difficult to eradicate.  For this reason, once the oil had been consumed, the pot was disposed of and disposed of in a landfill.

In 1878 Heinrich Dressell discovered one of these dumps or deposits of used amphorae, on the left bank of the Tiber River, in a place near Rome, near the place where it had been used as a mooring or river port for trade and supply to the city. The deposit found was so large that it had formed a hill several tens of metres high, made up exclusively of fragments and remains of amphorae of all kinds, which were arranged in layers of different thicknesses.  There, thousands and thousands of oil amphorae had been piled up for a long time along with others, in smaller numbers, of wine and fish. All the marks and emblems indicated that most of them came from La Bética, province of Hispania. The vases must have been deposited between 138 and 260 AD and the site is known today as “Monte Testaccio” (Mount of the amphorae), making mention of its singularity.

The largest producer of olive oil in the Roman Empire

The Roman province of La Bética in Hispania, now part of Andalusia, was the main supplier of olive oil to the entire Roman Empire and especially to the city of Rome.  The oil from the Guadalquivir valley was concentrated in the river ports to be transported in small vessels across the river and then in larger vessels as the depth of the riverbed allowed, to end up in the sea.  Once there, the route consisted of bordering the peninsula, sailing eastwards and always close to the coast. The Strait of Gibraltar was crossed, and after a few days of sailing along the Andalusian Mediterranean coast, the boat headed north, never losing sight of the mainland, until it finally reached the mouth of the Rhone River in the south of France.  From this point the commercial road forked into two: one that penetrated through the valley of this river and going up again it was introduced in Las Galias, and the other, the most important, continued and followed the coast until the city of Rome.

The export of olive oil from Hispania was very old, but it had to be developed especially in the time of Augustus (1st century B.C.), from which periods of greater or lesser commercial intensity alternated, to decrease after the 3rd century, until it was almost annulled with the invasion of the barbarians.  The most intense period of oil traffic took place during the reign of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138 to 161 AD).

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