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 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.
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.
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?