Junked Jars

fun fact friday (800x520)

 J is for junked jars

Every now and then I stumble on a fascinating bit of historical trivia, like an ancient Roman landfill called Monte Testaccio. In English, we might call it Mount Potsherd.

Monte Testaccio

The grass-covered hill rises about 115 ft, but may have been higher in earlier centuries.

Monte Testaccio is an artificial hill in Rome made almost exclusively from smashed Roman amphoras (or amphorae), most of which once contained olive oil. The landfill is located along the Tiber River, near where several large warehouses once stored the impressive quantities of wheat, oil and other commodities that were imported to feed the city’s population. It took centuries to grow to its present size.

an amphora on the ground

Photo Credit: © Axel Naud via Compfight cc

Amphoras are those two-handled storage jars with a narrow neck and a pointy bottom. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and were used throughout the Roman empire to store and transport liquids, most notably wine and olive oil. Many of the amphoras found at Monte Testaccio held about 18 gallons.

These broken amphora are valuable to historians because many were labeled with painted or stamped inscriptions that describe everything from who manufactured the jar to which consuls were in office the year it was sold. Because Monte Testaccio was used for hundreds of years, the inscriptions provide us with an on-going glimpse of how commerce operated in Roman times.

amphora with imprints

This engraving shows the kind of information stamped into an amphora found at Monte Testaccio.

This video shows the excavation at Monte Testaccio and gives a close-up of the various inscriptions. (Email viewers click here to view the page in your browser.)

Wow. That’s one big pile of broken pots. Who could guess a landfill would be so interesting?


And now …


Junked Jars — 6 Comments

  1. One man’s trash is another’s treasure. Isn’t it funny how common place things people used to throw away because valuable collections for historians? Years from now, people will clamor for our empty toothpaste tubes!

    • I’m sure, when the first Roman official said, “let’s just pile the broken pieces over there,” they had no idea they’d be building an artificial hill. And what happened to all the other stuff they threw away?

  2. Interesting post, Lisa. When we would visit colonial Fort Michilimackinac, which used an archeological dig to rebuild the fort, I was always most fascinated with the everyday items the people had used. The shards of pottery or buttons gave a more intimate picture to me than a sword, as interesting as that was as well.
    Who knew the Romans had landfills too? 😉

    • I guess when you live in a city that large for so many centuries, you have to put the trash somewhere. I think it is particularly fascinating that they built one entirely of pottery shards.

    • So would I! I would love to see many historic sites in Italy, way more than I could visit on one trip.