Amphora Containers Embellished
with Masonic Symbolism
An amphora (English
plural: amphorae or amphoras) is a type of container of a
characteristic shape and size, descending from at least as early as the
Neolithic Period. Amphorae were used in vast numbers for the transport and
storage of various products, both liquid and dry, but mostly for wine. It is
most often ceramic, but examples in metals and other materials have been
The amphora complements the large
storage container, the pithos, which makes available capacities between one-half
and two and one-half tons. In contrast, the amphora holds under a half-ton,
typically less than 100 pounds. The bodies of the two types have similar shapes.
Where the pithos may have multiple small loops or lugs for fastening a rope
harness, the amphora has two expansive handles joining the shoulder of the body
and a long neck. The necks of pithoi are wide for scooping or bucket access. The
necks of amphorae are narrow for pouring by a person holding it by the bottom
and a handle. Some variants exist. The handles might not be present. The size
may require two or three handlers to lift. For the most part, however, an
amphora was tableware, or sat close to the table, was intended to be seen, and
was finely decorated as such by master painters.
Stoppers of perishable materials,
which have rarely survived, were used to seal the contents. Two principal types
of amphorae existed: the neck amphora, in which the neck and body meet at
a sharp angle; and the one-piece amphora, in which the neck and body form
a continuous curve. Neck amphorae were commonly used in the early history of
ancient Greece, but were gradually replaced by the one-piece type from around
the 7th century BC onward.
Most were produced with a pointed
base to allow upright storage by embedding in soft ground, such as sand. The
base facilitated transport by ship, where the amphorae were packed upright or on
their sides in as many as five staggered layers.
If upright, the bases probably were held by some sort of rack,
and ropes passed through their handles to prevent shifting or toppling during
rough seas. Heather and reeds might be used as packing around the vases. Racks
could be used in kitchens and shops. The base also concentrated deposits from
liquids with suspended solid particles, such as olive oil and wines.
Amphorae are of great use to
maritime archaeologists, as they often indicate the age of a shipwreck and the
geographic origin of the cargo. They are occasionally so well preserved that the
original content is still present, providing information on foodstuffs and
mercantile systems. Amphorae were too cheap and plentiful to return to their
origin-point and so, when empty, they were broken up at their destination. At a
breakage site in Rome, Testaccio, close to the Tiber, the fragments, later
wetted with Calcium hydroxide (Calce viva), remained to create a hill now named
Monte Testaccio, 45 m (148 ft) high and more than 1 km in circumference.