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Multidisciplinary approaches to food and foodways in the medieval Eastern Mediterranean

Sylvie Yona Waksman

Trading goods, trading tastes

One amphora, different contents

The multiple purposes of Byzantine amphorae according to written and archaeological data

Evelina Todorova


Although scarce, there are hints in historical sources concerning those bulk goods in high demand that were most probably transported in amphorae, wine being the most common. Supplementary data from archaeobotanical analyses of the contents of amphorae as well as epigraphic evidence, such as graffiti and dipinti, confirm this and enable a larger variety of products to be identified, sometimes pointing towards secondary uses of amphorae. Additional light is shed on the primary uses of Byzantine amphorae by the fact that Günsenin type I amphorae were produced according to specific metric standards depending on the product that they were intended to transport originally – red wine, white wine or wheat. In conclusion, it may be stated that, like Early Byzantine specimens, amphorae from the 9th to the mid‑15th century were containers with several purposes, but it is still difficult to establish a definitive link between certain vessel types and the corresponding products they carried.

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  • 1 The secondary use of amphorae in architecture as construction elements (Demangel & Mamboury 1939, (...)

1Amphorae are included in the archaeological evidence that can provide for the reconstruction of ancient economies and trade. However, since they were not the actual objects of trade, they should be considered rather as indicators for the commercial relations and exchange that existed when they were in use. Like all containers, amphorae were not produced as an end in themselves. They provided means for the long-distance transport of bulk goods. The production of large ceramic vessels, meant as simple containers, was a time-consuming and resource-demanding process that required a certain level of organization of highly skilled potters. Thus, once the initial product contained was successfully delivered to its destination, amphorae were reused for the transport of other products as many times as possible before they were discarded (van Doorninck 1989).1 The products may have been identical to those for which the amphorae were first produced, or unrelated to their initial use.

2In order to better understand the economy and trade networks that existed in the Mediterranean during the Byzantine period, it is necessary to define the primary and secondary uses of amphorae through consideration of all possible information (written sources, data from archaeological excavations, epigraphy, results from chemical analyses, etc.). The results may not be clear, because it is often difficult to determine whether the products transported in the container at the time of discovery are related to primary or secondary use. It must be established whether the amphorae were produced to transport one or more specific products or were containers that could be used for the transport of any product. It is worth discovering whether a change from primary to secondary use can be discerned over time.

3Scholars studying amphorae from different periods agree that wine and olive oil were the most common products transported in these containers. The high level of wine consumption in ancient and medieval times was an aspect of the Mediterranean diet. Whatever the social status or wealth, wine was consumed with meals. Olive oil was used for illumination (burned in lamps) and for cooking. Icons and jewels were coated with a varnish obtained by mixing melted amber and oil. The church was a big consumer of wine and oil, since both were used for communion, blessing and treatment of the sick (Noonan & Kovalev 1997, pp. 75, 77; 1999, pp. 123, 131‑133). Other products transported in amphorae were salted fish, fish sauce, honey, incense, and terebinth resin (Karagiorgou 2001, pp. 138‑139).

The Late Roman amphorae

4The great variety of amphorae that have survived from the Hellenistic and the Roman periods and their shapes have provided information about their content, its quality and the region of origin. Based on Macrobius’ “Saturnalia”, A. Opaiţ endeavoured to establish a link between the shape and the content of ancient amphorae (Opaiţ 2007, p. 101). A similar attempt was made by O. Karagiorgou for two of the most widespread types of Early Byzantine amphorae – the Late Roman 1 and 2 (LRA1 and LRA2). The author associates both types with the transport of food supplies for the army (annona militaris). According to her opinion, LRA1 were used for wine, while the earlier LRA2, with funnel-shaped necks, were intended for oil, and the later LRA2, with conical necks, were used for both wine and oil (Karagiorgou 2001, pp. 147‑149).

5A recent study by A. Yangaki (2014) states that no valid relation between the shape of the amphora and its content can be established. Results from chemical analyses indicate that the frequently used argument that only amphorae primarily intended for wine had their inner walls lined with resin in order to make them “waterproof” is inconsistent, since oil amphorae may also be resin-lined, and that LRA1 and LRA2 amphorae were used for the transport of both wine and oil (Pecci & Cau Ontiveros 2010; Pecci et al. 2010, p. 364, tabl. 1, 2).

  • 2 For terminology and equality between the Yassıada globular amphorae and the LRA2, see van Alfen 20 (...)

6F. van Doorninck reached a similar conclusion about the Yassıada globular amphorae (LRA2)2 used for the transport of annona militaris. After carrying out a very detailed linear and volumetric measurement of the jars, he discovered that they were produced in five weight capacity sizes according to a strictly controlled system based on the Byzantine pound – the litra [λίτρα], equal to 315 g. The capacities of some containers were initially calculated so that they could carry the corresponding amount of λίτραι for both wine and oil, while the others were only fabricated for wine (van Doorninck 2015a, pp. 48‑52). This system for a standardization of amphorae according to the volume contained was uncharacteristic for previous periods. It was developed and introduced in the early 7th century by both the state and the church as a means for controlling production, distribution and consumption, and for more efficient record-keeping (van Alfen 2015, pp. 30‑31). P. van Alfen used the same approach for the LRA1 from the Yassıada shipwreck. Although he could not determine with certainty whether the amphora capacities corresponded strictly to the sextarius [ξέστης] – a unit for liquid capacity used in Roman times and measuring ca 0.546 l, or the λίτρα, he concluded that some of the containers were primarily destined for white wine, others for red wine and others for oil (van Alfen 1996, pp. 206‑207, 209).

7According to archaeobotanical analyses, some of the Yassıada amphorae did contain wine (Bryant & Murray 1982, pp. 327‑331; Ward 2015, pp. 58, 60). It has long been accepted that the graffiti on some of the jars from the shipwreck indicate that they were reused. In the earlier publication, the abbreviation ΕΛΕ was interpreted to stand for olives or olive oil, while ΓΛΥ was deciphered as sweet wine, or olives preserved in sweet wine (van Doorninck 1989, p. 252, fig. 2: 15‑16). In a more recent work, F. van Doorninck accepts another interpretation that better supports his hypothesis that the ship belonged to the church and was used for the transport of food supplies for the army during Heraclius’ campaign against the Persians. Thus ΕΛΕ is interpreted as representing olive oil, while ΓΛΥ indicates sweet olive oil, used for religious purposes. The author assumes that inscriptions of ΦΑΚΕΑ (lentils) on some of the older containers from the cargo were made when the amphorae served as storage jars (van Doorninck 2015b, p. 207).

The “Dark Ages” amphorae

8Although it does not explicitly mention that during the “Dark Ages” wine and oil were transported in amphorae, the Rhodian sea law does provide hints (Letsios 1996, p. 264). Many globular amphorae (7th-9th century), deriving from LRA1 and LRA2, have been found across the Mediterranean. Although generally similar, they came from different production centers and apparently did not conform to any standards. Their limited distribution resulted from the shrinking economy and the transition from long-distance trade to contacts organized on a more limited, regional level (Poulou-Papadimitriou 2001, pp. 243‑245). Thus amphorae produced in the vicinity of Naples, Misenum and Ischia (Arthur 1993), and Otranto (Arthur et al. 1992; Arthur & Patterson 1998) have been found as far as Sicily (Ardizzone et al. 1998, pp. 408‑410, fig. 9‑10; Ardizzone 2000) and the Adriatic (Reynolds 2004, p. 331, fig. 13.324; Cirelli 2009, fig. 4: 2). Although no evidence for their contents is available, F. Ardizzone presumes that traders were transporting wine from Campania in exchange for grain from Sicily (Ardizzone 2000, pp. 405‑406). As Italy was also producing olive oil, it is highly probable that the primary use of the jars included both wine and oil.

9With respect to the locally-produced globular amphorae from Crete, A. Yangaki suggests that they were multipurpose – simultaneously used for transport and as storage jars, containing wine or oil, but also sauces, honey or other liquid products (Yangaki 2005, p. 304; 2014, pp. 102‑103).

10The chemical analyses of the contents of the late 9th century Bozburun amphorae provide much information. Most of the jars were full of unrefined wine, containing lees, grape skins, and seeds. The number of seeds in the jars differed, but it is not possible to judge whether this indicates different grades of wine or whether there is some other reason. The wine was flavored with aromatic herbs, fruits and other plant material (fruit from the bean family, fruit from the pistachio/sumac family, cypress pollen, carob pollen). Grape pollen was also discovered. The presence of seeds from wild vines suggests that in the wine production wild grapes were mixed with domesticated grapes. One amphora contained about 1,500 olive stones and is considered to be associated with the food supplies for the crew. Another amphora was full of more than 7,500 grape pips. It was proposed that they derived from grapes or raisins that were probably preserved in must or wine. Some of the amphorae held wine flavored with fish sauce (Gorham 2000, pp. 60‑153). The production centers of the jars have been identified on the southern shores of the Crimea (Hocker 1995, p. 6, fig. 5; Hocker & Scafuri 1996, p. 5, fig. 3‑5; Hocker 1998a, p. 14, fig. 3; Hocker 1998b, pp. 4‑5, fig. 3) where many 8th to 10th century sites with evidence of kilns and wasters are located (Yakobson 1979, pp. 39‑58, fig. 20‑30; Parshina et al. 2001, pp. 53‑73, fig. 2‑41). The area corresponds to territories controlled by the Byzantines, where the ruins of many settlements and monastic compounds are found (Baranov 1981, fig. 1). It is to be noted that among the wasters near the kilns there was discovered a certain kind of vessel used for mixing wine with aromatic herbs, fruits and kernels (Parshina et al. 2001, p. 74), in a mix probably similar to the Bozburun wine. Since the cargo of the shipwreck has not yet been published in its entirety and there are no preliminary publications concerning the capacities of the amphorae, it is not possible to judge whether the containers were fabricated according to a standardized system and if so, what kind of weight/capacity measurements they were based on. Another interesting factor is that, except for the amphora that contained olives as part of the passengers’ ration, there is no other evidence for oil content.

The Middle Byzantine amphorae

11The revival of the Byzantine economy and the restoration of long-distance trade in the 10th century were marked by the appearance of several new types of amphorae. The Günsenin I and Günsenin II jars are represented by hundreds of thousands of sherds found throughout the Mediterranean, almost always in the same context on the sites (Todorova 2012, pp. 48‑68). Based on the opinion of O. Karagiorgou (2001, pp. 147‑149) mentioned above concerning the relation of shape to content of the LRA1 and LRA2, I had proposed that the Günsenin I amphorae held wine, while the funnel-shaped rim of the Günsenin II was more suitable for pouring olive oil. Like their Early Byzantine equivalents, they were used for the transport of food supplies for Byzantine troops on the lower Danube and local markets from the end of the 10th through the 11th century (Todorova 2012, p. 116).

12A production center for Günsenin I amphorae was identified on the northern coast of the Sea of Marmara, near Ganos. The area has been known since Antiquity for the production of wine. According to written sources, a large monastery was established there in the 10th century. Kilns and wasters from ceramic workshops, most probably linked to the estate, were found. N. Günsenin has proposed that the primary use of the amphorae was the transport of wine (Günsenin 1990, pp. 47‑50; 1993, pp. 194‑196; Günsenin & Hatcher 1997, pp. 249, 256; Günsenin 1999, pp. 125‑127; 2002, pp. 127, 132‑133). The abundance of the Günsenin I amphorae is an indication that Ganos wine was well known and sought after even in later periods. Theodore Prodromos (a 12th century author) mentioned the sweetness of the Ganos wine (Ptochoprodromos, p. 157, IV.332). Recently I have suggested that the Ganos monastery was established and prospered because of the Byzantine policy concerning the lower Danube (Todorova, forthcoming).

13The large-scale distribution of Günsenin I containers leads to the question – was Ganos the only production center and was the monastery able to satisfy the enormous demand for agricultural products? Were there other estates and ceramic workshops producing the same type of transport containers? If this was so, then the potters would have adhered to certain standards and would have produced amphorae that were morphologically and dimensionally similar, as in the case of the LRA1 and LRA2 amphorae.

  • 3 Chemical analyses of the fabric showed that some of the ceramic containers were produced in Ganos (...)
  • 4 In this case values from 318 g to 320 g for one λίτρα were used for the correlations of the volume (...)

14The answer to this question is provided by F. van Doorninck. Based on the fact that in the Byzantine Empire liquids were not measured by volume but by weight, and that red wine was heavier than white wine, he performed an experiment with the Günsenin I amphorae from the early 11th century Serçe Limanı shipwreck.3 After very precise measurement of both the weight and volume of the jars, F. van Doorninck concluded that they do represent a highly standardized production. He was able to discern several sizes correlated with weight capacities based on the Byzantine λίτρα, corresponding to a content of either white or red wine. Some of the amphorae, according to size, were made for the transport of the corresponding amount of both red and white wine (van Doorninck 1993).4 In a more recent publication, revising the method of calculation, the author defines clusters of weight capacity sizes and also identified amphorae that contained sweet boiled wine (as stated by Ptochoprodromos). Thus he has proved that the standardized production of amphorae for the transport of the annona introduced in the early 7th century continued to exist and was even refined (van Doorninck 2015a, pp. 35‑48). This supports my suggestion that Günsenin I amphorae were produced to transport supplies for the Byzantine army on the lower Danube.

  • 5 The μόδιος τριπινακίων is a Byzantine measure for grain and solid bulk that equals ca 12.813 l (Sc (...)
  • 6 While during the Early Byzantine period the ανονικός μόδιος (for solid bulk, ca 11.389 l) and the (...)

15E. Garver performed a similar experiment with the Günsenin I amphorae from the Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Applying F. van Doorninck’s methods, she was able to demonstrate that the jars were fabricated not only for the transport of wine, but also for the transport of grain or other bulk goods, since their weight capacities conformed to the modios tripinakion [μόδιος τριπινακίων]5 (Garver 1993, pp. 162‑173). In this regard, it will be interesting in the future to verify whether there is a weight capacity size of amphorae related to the anonikos modios [ανονικός μόδιος] and the anonikon metron [ανονικόν μέτρον].6

16In the present state of research there is no evidence for the primary use of the Günsenin II amphorae. Were they used for storing wine, oil or both? If the Günsenin I amphorae were not intended for oil, where are the amphorae used for oil? A dipinto on the neck of a Günsenin II amphora from Thessaloniki (Papanikola-Bakirtzi 2002, p. 146, cat. no. 157а) indicates that wine was among the commodities that could be contained in the jars, although it is difficult to determine whether this use was primary or secondary, a matter which will be discussed below.

17The Günsenin II containers present a wide variety of fabrics and shapes that would have come from different workshops (Todorova 2012, pp. 60‑63, 67, pl. XVIII: 114‑XXXII: 196, pl. LXXX: 114‑XCIII: 196). However, they have similar morphological characteristics, which favours the hypothesis that certain standards were maintained during their fabrication. This theory is to be proven or rejected when the measurements and the calculation of their weight capacities are carried out. Recently, Y. Waksman perfomed chemical analyses on the fabric of some Günsenin II and Günsenin III amphorae. She concluded that they came from at least two different production centers, one of which was identified as Chalcis on the island of Euboea (Waksman et al. 2018; Morozova et al., in this volume). Even today both olives and vines are cultivated in Euboea, therefore the Günsenin II and Günsenin III containers may have been intended for both products.

  • 7 Wine and oil were not produced in Kievan Rus and were in high demand, especially after the convers (...)

18Concerning secondary uses of amphorae, the best examples are to be found in the cargo of the Serçe Limanı shipwreck, which contained jars with traces of multiple reuse (van Doorninck 1989, pp. 253‑256, fig. 3, fig. 4: 3‑6). Although some of the contents of the amphorae were damaged by later intrusions, the results of the chemical analyses of residues showed that during its last voyage, the ship was transporting wine and sumac from Syria (the latter used not only as a medicament but also for cooking). Some of the jars contained almonds, apricots, peaches, plums, pomegranates, grapes, olives, and watermelon, which were included in the provisions for the crew and the passengers (van Doorninck 2002, p. 141; Ward 2004, pp. 499‑508). An entire inscription in Cyrillic letters mentioning wine was carved on the shoulders of a Günsenin I amphora found in Staraya Ryazan (Mongait 1955, fig. 145).7

  • 8 From the 6th-7th centuries the amphorae were called megarikon/magarikon [μεγαρικόν/μαγαρικόν] (Bak (...)
  • 9 During the Early Byzantine period, honey was considered a valuable foodstuff and was transported i (...)

19According to a Cyrillic graffito on a Günsenin I sherd from Veliki Preslav, the amphora was (re)filled with honey (Manolova-Voykova 2015, cat. no. 11, fig. 2: 5). In the Primary Chronicle (Povest’ vremennyh let) honey was mentioned among the commodities coming from the north to the lower Danube (Primary Chronicle, p. 51: year 969). The Bulgarian merchants who came to trade in Constantinople also brought honey with them (Book of the Eparch, p. 108, chap. 9.6). The use of skins as more common containers for the transport of honey should not be ruled out, but the practice of refilling wine amphorae that arrived on the lower Danube with honey or other commodities for the return journey south is not unlikely. A note preserved in the archives of the Holy Mount provides a good argument for honey being contained in amphorae. The source states that in the very beginning of the 12th century in exchange of his donation, the monk Damianos received from the Lavra an yearly allowance of foodstuff, including one amphora full of honey (Lavra I, p. 279, no. 54.14 [1101‑1002]). This raises the question of whether there was a specific type of amphora primarily used for honey. Since the source does not provide information about the quantity of the honey or the size of the amphora, does this mean that the value (weight/capacity) of both was well known to Damianos and his contemporaries?8 Were honey amphorae recognizable by shape or size? Were they and the Günsenin I amphorae fabricated each according to a specific metric system in order to contain a certain amount of honey?9

20The generally accepted opinion concerning graffiti and dipinti is that they are evidence for the reuse of amphorae. If, as implied by F. van Doorninck, standardization and unification of weight capacities were applied to ceramic transport containers, and since their primary use concerned more than one product, should one still consider graffiti and dipinti as marks of secondary use? Do some of them indicate the primary use of the jars? These marks would not have been made by the potters, who could have incorporated a sign prior to firing, but rather by other participants in the trade network, such as workers who filled the amphorae, merchants, dockers, ship owners, clerks, officials, and consumers. Thus for those who were not acquainted with the relation between weight capacity, shape and content, or when the same jar was used for two different products, the graffiti/dipinti would indicate the content, making it easily recognizable and eliminating guesswork. This practice does not rule out the cases in which graffiti/dipinti denoted a secondary use, for products different from those for which the amphorae were fabricated initially.

  • 10 In the present state of research no evidence is available indicating that the Athonite monasteries (...)

21According to another source, the Athonite monasteries were allowed to possess ships that were used for transporting wine to the markets of Thessaloniki and Constantinople (Kaplan 1992, p. 70).10

22Concerning the Byzantine expedition against the Arabs in Crete in 949, Constantine Porphyrogenitus mentions that the Byzantine ships were loaded with amphorae full of cedar wood oil and liquid tar/pitch (Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Ceremoniis, p. 673, II.45). These flammable substances were important for Byzantine warfare. Petroleum/naphta was one of the essential components of their secret weapon – Greek Fire. Valuable information on the petroleum pits in the vicinity of Tamatarka/Tmutarakan is provided by the same author (Constantine Porphyrogenitus, DAI, pp. 284‑286, chap. 53.493‑511). Extraction of petroleum from the northern Black Sea coast was recorded from Late Antiquity onward (Yakobson 1951, p. 329, fig. 3: 13; Yakobson 1979, p. 12, fig. 3: 1). The substance was also used for lighting and for medical treatment. Locally-produced pitchers were used for transporting this substance during the 8th to 10th centuries. The chemical analysis of the black coating on the inside confirmed that the petroleum came from the Kerch peninsula (Anfimov 1953, pp. 151‑154, fig. 52; Pletneva 1959, p. 247; Dzhanov & Mayko 1998, p. 168, fig. 10: 6; Zelenko 2001, p. 84).

The Late Byzantine amphorae

23References concerning wine and wine-producing areas in the written sources increase over the following period. The archives of the monastery “St John the Theologian” on the island of Patmos (12th century) mention the cultivation of vineyards, olive trees and fruit trees (Hendy 1985, p. 53). According to Michael Choniates, other 12th century wine production centers were the islands of Euboea, Chios, Rhodes, and Ptelios (Michael Choniates, p. 69, epistle 50.62‑63). Wines became distinguishable not only by provenance, but also by quality. In one of his poems, Theodore Prodromos contrasted the low-quality wine mixed with water that came from Varna to the good wine from Chios, the sweet wine from Ganos, and the Cretan and Samian wines (Ptochoprodromos, p. 148, IV.181, p. 157, IV.332, p. 160, IV.395‑396). During the 13th-14th centuries, the wines from Triglia (Gerolymatou 2003, pp. 491‑492), Lampsacus, Pergamon, Cyzicus, and Trebizond (Günsenin 1990, pp. 58‑59, 68‑70) were well known. The Florentine merchant Francesco Pegolotti listed the following wines in the first half of the 14th century – wine from Romania, Cyprus, Crete, Rhodes, Triglia, Malvagia (Monemvasia), and Stiva (Thebes) (Hendy 1985, p. 51; Laiou 1988, p. 192). Corinth, Sparta, Thebes and other sites in the Peloponnese produced olive oil and resin (Laiou 1993, pp. 84‑85, 87).

24In Roman times the interior of amphorae used for the transport of fish was coated with resin. Sometimes wine amphorae were reused to carry fish or fish sauces (Opaiţ 2007, p. 119). Possibly the tradition continued during the Middle Ages. N. Günsenin describes an amphora full of salted fish that was exhibited at the Museum of Marseille (Günsenin 1990, p. 62). The inhabitants of Trebizond imported salted fish from Chersonesos and the Sea of Azov (Karpov 2011, p. 418).

25There is a discrepancy between the wine-producing regions and the amphora types available during this period. The variety of shapes and the number of amphorae decreased significantly. After the mid‑13th century, amphorae disappeared from the Mediterranean and their circulation became restricted to the Black Sea area (Todorova 2012, pp. 78‑90), as they were gradually and definitively replaced by the cheaper wooden barrels used by Italian merchants (Bakirtzis 1989, pp. 84‑86) who had come to fully control the trade and exchange of commodities in the Mediterranean.

  • 11 See Todorova 2012, pp. 60‑63, 67, pl. XVIII: 114‑XXXII: 196, pl. LXXX: 114‑XCIII: 196. Earlier, ba (...)
  • 12 P. Armstrong reports that wine, oil and other products were exported from Beotia through Chalcis a (...)

26The two major amphora types at the time were the Günsenin III and Günsenin IV. Their quantity is not comparable to that of the Günsenin I and Günsenin II types. Is this another indication of standardization of ceramic containers produced by different workshops, or was it because they were replaced by wooden barrels? Chemical analyses performed by A. Pecci show that jars of both types contained wine and oil, but it is still difficult to determine whether this is evidence of primary or secondary use (Pecci et al., in this volume). A small amphora sherd having the Cyrillic graffito ΜΑCΛΟ (oil) was found among Günsenin III and IV amphora material from Beloozero (Golubeva 1973, p. 241; Makarov 2009, fig. 28.5: 2). The publications do not explicitly discuss whether the sherd belonged to one type or the other. As mentioned above,11 Chalcis was one of the Günsenin III production centers, and since the territorial distribution of these amphorae clustered around the Peloponnesian coast, both wine and oil can be accepted as possible contents (Todorova 2012, p. 165; Koutsouflakis, in this volume).12

27Based on the resin-lined interiors and the grape pips found inside the Günsenin IV amphorae from the 13th century Çamaltı Burnu shipwreck, N. Günsenin identified them as wine containers (Günsenin 2001, p. 118; 2003, p. 364; 2005, p. 120). Some of the largest jars of this type are thin-walled and intentionally pierced before firing with small holes (0.7‑1.2 cm in diameter) in the lower part of the body, close to the bottom (Günsenin 1990, pp. 20, 242, type 4f, pl. LXIV: 1a, b; Rudakov 1975, p. 26; Volkov 1989, p. 90; 2001, fig. 1; Todorova 2012, p. 84, pl. XLII: 248, pl. XLIII: 254). N. Günsenin has suggested that these holes were intended to release the gases produced during wine fermentation. According to her interpretation, the liquid was poured into the amphorae while wine fermentation was still under way, a change in the wine production methods that occurred in the Late Byzantine period. The small hole, where a tiny wooden stick was placed, enabled the gases to escape in order to prevent an explosion (Günsenin 2003, p. 364, fig. 6). In light of the fact that these holes are present only on the largest Günsenin IV jars, my hypothesis is that the possibility of a new fashion of pouring actively fermenting wine may be the reason for the appearance of the largest Günsenin IV amphorae. The spindle-like shape of these jars and a maximum diameter of some 50 cm were perfect for the development of the fermentation. In this case, the amphorae could have been only half-full (to the level of the maximum diameter) with the upper part of the vessel remaining empty, leaving enough space for the gases and avoiding explosion. Also, the half-full amphorae would have been easier to handle since they were not as heavy as they would have been if they were full to the rim. If the Günsenin IV amphorae were intended only for wine, was oil transported exclusively in wooden barrels and marketed by the Italians?

  • 13 An amphora type from the Novy Svet shipwreck that is less frequently represented in the Mediterran (...)

28No weight capacity measurements in relation to the medieval metric systems are available for the two amphora types. Still, it is obvious that both Günsenin III and Günsenin IV jars were produced in different sizes. Günsenin III is even represented by some very small specimens, about 30 cm high (Amouric et al. 1999, p. 19, fig. 39; Todorova 2012, cat. no. 214, pl. XCVI: 214; Zelenko & Morozova 2010, p. 82, pl. 8: 5, pl. 44: 5).13

  • 14 See van Doorninck 1993, p. 12; van Alfen 2015, p. 25. The δάκτυλος is the smallest unit for measur (...)

29P. van Alfen and F. van Doorninck observed that the necks of the LRA2 and Günsenin I containers were produced separately, whatever their body weight capacity. Their dimensions are identical and the place where the necks join the bodies is clearly identifiable (van Doorninck 1993, p. 12; van Alfen 2015, p. 25). I personally have made the same observation concerning the neck of a Günsenin III amphora from Chalcis (Waksman et al. 2018, fig. 1: BZN806) that had become detached from the body of the container, the joining line being clear. Does this mean that the standardization based on the λίτρα and the dactylos (δάκτυλος)14 was still in use in the 13th century?

  • 15 According to E. Schilbach this locally used unit of measurement for liquids corresponds either to (...)

30I. Volkov hypothesized that the largest Günsenin IV amphorae were produced in Trebizond according to the local metric system, using the tzarikion [τζαρίκιον] as measure of reference (Volkov 2001, pp. 207‑209).15 That Trebizond was a production center of these jars has not yet been convincingly proven.

Concluding remarks

31The insufficient information and knowledge available on the contents of the amphorae prevents a definitive conclusion concerning the primary and secondary uses of the vessels. However, it is possible to say that Byzantine amphorae were multipurpose containers, initially destined for the transport of more than one commodity, wine and oil being the most common. I believe that all Byzantine amphorae were produced following established weight capacity requirements and that their production was strictly controlled by the state and the church. Further practical research based on large collections of identical amphorae such as loads of shipwrecks will confirm or reject this hypothesis. Chemical analyses of amphorae sherds and residues from amphorae found near their production sites will most probably allow determining the primary use of the vessels and solving the problem – wine amphora, oil amphora or both.


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Yangaki 2014: Yangaki A., “Quelques réflexions sur le contenu (vin et huile) des amphores proto-byzantines. Données et perspectives de la recherche”, in A. Pellettieri (ed.), Identità euromediterranea e paesaggi culturali del vino e dell’olio, Collana MenSALe, Documenta et Monumenta 2, Foggia, 2014, pp89‑103.

Zelenko 2001: Зеленко С.М. [= Zelenko S.M.], “Корабокрушения IX‑XI вв. в Судакской бухте” [= “The shipwrecks of 9‑11th centuries AD in Sudak Bay”], in Морська торгівля в Північному Причорномор’ї [= Maritime trade in the northern Black Sea region], Kiev, 2001, pp. 82‑92.

Zelenko & Morozova 2010: Zelenko S., Morozova Y., “Amphorae assemblage from the 13th century shipwreck in the Black Sea, near Sudak”, in D. Kassab Tezgör, N. Inaishvili (ed.), PATABS I. Production and trade of amphorae in the Black Sea: Actes de la table ronde internationale de Batoumi et Trabzon (27‑29 avril 2006), Varia Anatolica 21, Istanbul, 2010, pp. 81‑84.


1 The secondary use of amphorae in architecture as construction elements (Demangel & Mamboury 1939, pp. 2‑3, 44‑46, fig. 49; Theoharidou 1988, pp. 170‑171; Aleksova 1960, p. 200, fig. 1; Daskalov & Trendafilova 2008, fig. 3) or as storage jars and buckets in households (Antonova & Damyanov 1969, p. 32, fig. 6: 13, 14; Pletneva 1963, p. 52; Yakobson 1979, p. 111) is irrelevant to Mediterranean economy and trade and is not discussed here.

2 For terminology and equality between the Yassıada globular amphorae and the LRA2, see van Alfen 2015, p. 32, endnote 2.

3 Chemical analyses of the fabric showed that some of the ceramic containers were produced in Ganos (Günsenin & Hatcher 1997).

4 In this case values from 318 g to 320 g for one λίτρα were used for the correlations of the volume capacities to the weight capacities of the amphorae.

5 The μόδιος τριπινακίων is a Byzantine measure for grain and solid bulk that equals ca 12.813 l (Schilbach 1970, p. 99).

6 While during the Early Byzantine period the ανονικός μόδιος (for solid bulk, ca 11.389 l) and the ανονικόν μέτρον (for measuring liquids, ca 6.833 l) referred to food supplies for the army (annona militaris) and the population of big cities (annona civica), during the Middle and Late Byzantine periods they gradually lost this specific definition and became associated generally with food provision (Schilbach 1970, pp. 99‑100, 113‑114).

7 Wine and oil were not produced in Kievan Rus and were in high demand, especially after the conversion to Christianity. This explains the large amount of amphora sherds of different types found along the Dnieper River and its tributaries and farther north. In some of the Russian cities, large cellars full of amphorae were investigated in boyar houses or near churches. The wine and oil were intended for direct consumption or for religious purposes (Noonan & Kovalev 1997; 1999).

8 From the 6th-7th centuries the amphorae were called megarikon/magarikon [μεγαρικόν/μαγαρικόν] (Bakirztis 1989, p. 71). The same word is also used to denote a measure for liquids that equals 102.503 l (Schilbach 1970, pp. 112‑113). Although for the Middle Byzantine period no amphorae with such an excessive capacity are documented so far, should one assume that they did exist? In the case of Damianos, did the word μεγαρικόν refer to the clay vessel (the amphora) without considering its capacity or the source stated only the quantity of the honey received by the monk (like it is stated for all the other products mentioned) with no regard to the type of the container/s used for its transportation?

9 During the Early Byzantine period, honey was considered a valuable foodstuff and was transported in small ceramic vessels (McCormick 1998, footnote 79).

10 In the present state of research no evidence is available indicating that the Athonite monasteries produced wine and fabricated amphorae. If the monks did actually produce wine and containers, were the latter identical in shape and capacity to those already known? So far we can only presume that an amphora workshop existed close to the monastic compound and medieval settlement near Maroneia on the north Aegean coast, since a few metal and clay seals for stamping amphorae were found there (Evans & Wixom 1997, p. 258, cat. no. 179; Papanikola-Bakirtzi 2002, p. 83, cat. no. 38, cat. no. 40a, b).

11 See Todorova 2012, pp. 60‑63, 67, pl. XVIII: 114‑XXXII: 196, pl. LXXX: 114‑XCIII: 196. Earlier, based on the Günsenin III distribution, G. Sanders presumed that their place of manifacture should be located on the northern coast of Asia Minor (Sanders 1993, p. 283). D. Pieri is a supporter of an Aegean origin and considers that probably some of the amphorae came from the same production centers as the LRA2 (Pieri 1995, p. 91).

12 P. Armstrong reports that wine, oil and other products were exported from Beotia through Chalcis and Euboea (Armstrong 1993, pp. 295‑296).

13 An amphora type from the Novy Svet shipwreck that is less frequently represented in the Mediterranean contained a few seeds of Cyperus rotundus (coco grass, purple nut sedge) that was used in ancient times for flavouring oil due to its aroma (Zelenko & Morozova 2010, p. 83, pl. 44: 4).

14 See van Doorninck 1993, p. 12; van Alfen 2015, p. 25. The δάκτυλος is the smallest unit for measuring length in Byzantine times and equals 1.95 cm (Schilbach 1970, p. 16).

15 According to E. Schilbach this locally used unit of measurement for liquids corresponds either to 53.880 l or to 60.662 l (Schilbach 1970, p. 128).


Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, National Institute of Archaeology with Museum, Department of Medieval Archaeology, 2 Saborna St., Sofia 1000, Bulgaria,

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