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Olive Oil History: Packaging, Transportation and Sale

Jan. 27, 2013

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The main hub of oil pro­duc­tion in ancient Baetica was cen­tred in the Valle Medio del Guadalquivir. Here there was a pre­dom­i­nance of the pot­ter cen­tres in which large and heavy oil amphorae were man­u­fac­tured to trans­port oil. The very same that later were piled up on the inside of the ships cross­ing the wide sea to trade with this prod­uct. Of all of them, the Dressel 20 lasted for the cen­tral cen­turies of the Roman Empire.

In the midst of a sea of olive trees, spat­tered with sil­ver, white and pale indigo, the activ­ity in the potter’s work­shop was fre­netic. It con­sisted of a few mod­est, but robust, build­ings with walls made of thou­sands of amphora frag­ments and cov­ered with tiles that were also man­u­fac­tured on site. Perched on a small hillock close to the banks of the Betis, lit by sun­light and safe from pos­si­ble floods, very close to Carbula… A few hun­dred metres inland, a large group of slaves –almost unrecog­nis­able in their invol­un­tary cam­ou­flage caused by the thick layer of mud that cov­ered their bod­ies – pulled the clay from an uneven pit that oth­ers then went on to knead labo­ri­ously and ulti­mately leave it in a decanta­tion bag for a num­ber of days … This clay was used by the pot­ters to mould the large amphorae with nar­row mouths and fat bel­lies which were dried upside-down and in copi­ous amounts on the great esplanade located beside the south­ern façade of the com­plex; the seals of the pot­ter brand were clearly vis­i­ble on the upper part of the belly or the han­dles… Lastly, a bat­tery of eight kilns made entirely of adobe and clay and set in a line par­al­lel to the river, were con­stantly smok­ing, using fire to cook the ceramic recip­i­ents until they were strong and resis­tant enough to sur­vive the long cross­ing the major­ity of them were des­tined for, hav­ing become prac­ti­cally inde­struc­tible …”

This extract from the work, El Árbol del Pan (Plurabelle. Cordoba, 1994, 53 – 54), writ­ten by the under­signed author of this arti­cle, very clearly details how and where our prized liq­uid gold was stored in the past.

The text cer­tainly makes how the oil mar­ket was organ­ised very clear. The main Baetica oil pro­duc­tion hub was located in the Valle Medio del Guadalquivir, where there was an abun­dance of oil amphora pro­duc­tion cen­tres which, occa­sion­ally, coin­cided with the agri­cul­tural set­tle­ments as well. However, other times they sought the close­ness of the rivers Baetis and Singilis, with a view to avoid­ing the unnec­es­sary trans­porta­tion of heavy and volu­mi­nous recip­i­ents. This may well have been a dif­fer­ent busi­ness that did not lie in the hands of those respon­si­ble for mak­ing the oil. Thus, what was moved was the oil itself, in skin bot­tles that were later poured into the amphorae just before embark­ing.

Potter cen­tres

These pot­tery cen­tres, which iden­ti­fied the amphorae with the seal of the potter’s work­shop on the han­dle (a seal that usu­ally included an abbre­vi­a­tion of the owner, pro­ducer or officina’s full name ‑tria nom­ina-), were abun­dant in the coun­try­side of Cordoba, Almodóvar del Río, Posadas, Peñaflor, Écija… This is why it is com­mon to see on the land, in the clefts of the river, those same ovens in an excel­lent state of preser­va­tion inte­grated into far larger com­plexes (some of them up to 20 hectares, such as that of La Catria, in Lora del Río, Seville). These com­plexes tended to have other build­ings as well, such as work­places, liv­ing areas, store­houses, etc., and often their own necrop­o­lis.

This is the main rea­son why large amphora frag­ments (opus tes­taceum) are so com­mon in the houses through­out all of these areas. Strangely enough, these frag­ments were also used as con­struc­tion mate­ri­als for domes­tic and man­u­fac­tur­ing struc­tures, includ­ing the ovens.

Potters and potter’s work­shops

Nowadays, based on an analy­sis of the seals, we know that there were at least 100 figli­nae (work­shops) in the area and that at least 250 pot­ters were at work; this, with­out tak­ing into account those that left no trace of their work, which has sim­ply been lost or remains to be dis­cov­ered.

Archaeological digs in the area, con­trasted against the study of amphorae and Tituli picti of the Testaccio, pro­vide us with an enor­mous vol­ume of infor­ma­tion that allows us to get to know quite a lot of detail. Thus, for exam­ple, we know that the potter’s work­shop located in the Cortijo del Temple, close to Palma del Río (con­ven­tus Cordubensis) pro­duced a vast amount of amphorae in the Flavean-Trajanean period (last years of the 1st cen­tury AD) for a well-known fig­ure of the period, Caius Marius Silvanus, which also appears on the seals of the Testaccio amphorae with the nomen Marium.

The pam­pered daugh­ter of the Empire: the Dressel 20

These pot­ters, who laboured non-stop all year round, log­i­cally expe­ri­enced var­i­ous polit­i­cal , eco­nomic or social evo­lu­tion turn­arounds in the course of their exis­tence, with lead­er­ship chang­ing hands more than once. In some cases, they were even con­fis­cated by the great Beatica estates that pro­duced oil in tense moments of ide­o­log­i­cal read­just­ment.

It was there that a spe­cific amphora type was man­u­fac­tured, known in archae­ol­ogy jar­gon as Dressel 20. Thanks to its per­fect func­tion­al­ity, this ves­sel lasted through­out the cen­tral cen­turies of the Empire, with small vari­a­tions that ended up gen­er­at­ing other cat­e­gories: Tejarillo I and Dressel 23.

It is quite a large recip­i­ent, with a glob­u­lar shape that weighs 30 kilos and could con­tain 70 litres of oil. It was man­u­fac­tured in dif­fer­ent stages: first the belly, then the mouth and finally the base (clos­ing the ori­fice that had been left open to facil­i­tate dry­ing), and finally the han­dles. As stop­pers, they could use very sim­ple discs of clay designed spe­cially for this pur­pose (occa­sion­ally, a sim­ple frag­ment of cut out ceramic), bits of cork or mini amphorae con­tain­ing a sam­ple of the con­tent, thus mak­ing it pos­si­ble to ver­ify its qual­ity with­out hav­ing to open the recip­i­ent, that was usu­ally sealed.

Relics found

We can con­tem­plate Dressel 20 amphorae, the major­ity com­pletely intact, in many of our muse­ums. Thousands of them also lie at the bot­tom of the sea, in wrecks that never reached their port. They stand out for their enor­mous bel­lies and sur­pris­ing ergonom­ics, as they allowed for the prod­uct to be sealed per­fectly, were easy to trans­port and, very par­tic­u­larly, pro­vided a func­tional pil­ing sys­tem in the hold of the ships respon­si­ble for trans­port­ing them through­out the Empire.

These are ships we know very well, both because of the wrecks found, and the relief and mosaic illus­tra­tions of them which abound, for instance, in the port of Ostia, where the major­ity of them put in. They tended to be half draft sail boats, and could hold up to 10,000 wine or oil amphorae, set out using a sim­ple pil­ing sys­tem that allowed for the bot­toms of some to be wedged between the mouths of those in the lower row, in such a way that between 150 and 200 tonnes could be trans­ported.

Desiderio Vaquerizo Gil

Olivarama arti­cles also appear in Olivarama mag­a­zine and are not edited by Olive Oil Times.

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