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Monte Testaccio: Remnants of an Ancient Trade

Jan. 22, 2015
Laura Aitken-Burt

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It is well known that the love for olive oil does not sim­ply stem from mod­ern Mediterranean cui­sine but was a sta­ple in the diet of the ancients too. Olive groves have lined the vil­las and farms across the coun­try­side of Greece, Spain and Italy for cen­turies as they still do today. 

One of the most vivid reminders of the thriv­ing olive oil trade in antiq­uity is Monte Testaccio in Rome. At first sight, it may sim­ply look like a hill, much like the other seven in Rome that encir­cle the city. But when you pass through the gates on Via Zabaglia, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordi­nary mound; it is entirely man-made from the rem­nants of an esti­mated 53 mil­lion smashed olive oil amphorae.

So why are there so many amphorae sherds in one place? Firstly, the site of the mound on the east bank of the Tiber is located near the Horrea Galbae – a huge com­plex of state con­trolled ware­houses for the pub­lic grain sup­ply as well as wine, food and build­ing mate­ri­als. As ships came from abroad bear­ing the olive oil sup­plies, the trans­port amphorae were decanted into smaller con­tain­ers and the used ves­sels dis­carded nearby.

There’s a rea­son for this: Due to the clay uti­lized to make the amphorae not being lined with a glaze, after trans­porta­tion of olive oil, the amphorae could not be re-used because the oil cre­ated a ran­cid odour within the fab­ric of the clay. 

The sherds of ancient amphorae that make up Monte Testaccio

Walking up Rampa Heinrich Dressel, named after a late German scholar who stud­ied amphorae exten­sively, it is amaz­ing to be step­ping on so many pieces of evi­dence from an ancient civ­i­liza­tion. From the top of the 36-meter (118-foot) high hill, there is also a great view of the Rome skyline. 

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The University of Barcelona is cur­rently inves­ti­gat­ing the hill, look­ing for amphorae stamps or tit­uli piniti which could indi­cate the pre­cise ori­gin of some of the ves­sels and the con­tents within them. The type of clay used to make the amphorae can also give an indi­ca­tion of their ori­gin. Most of the ves­sels in this mound date from the sec­ond and third cen­turies AD from Baetica (Andalusia in Spain) and North Africa. 

This indi­cates an active trad­ing and trans­porta­tion net­work through colonies of the Roman Empire and a large demand for olive oil in the cap­i­tal — over 6 bil­lion liters of oil would have been car­ried in these ves­sels to cater to the culi­nary needs of this busy city of over a mil­lion people.

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