Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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Latin word from the Greek for a vessel with two handles. Although the term may refer sometimes to fine wares, it is normally used to describe the large pottery containers which were used for the bulk transport of many goods and liquids, including wine, in the Mediterranean world throughout classical antiquity (see Ancient egypt, for example). Despite the considerable variety of shape in amphorae, they mainly shared the characteristics of the two handles, a mouth narrow enough to be stoppered, and a bottom which tapered to a point (only a few, notably those of southern France, had flat bottoms). When full, many amphorae were a considerable weight; so the spike on the bottom served as a third handle, an essential point of purchase, when lifting and pouring. To carry wine the inner surface of the porous amphora was sealed with a coating of pine resin (see resinated wines). To stop the mouth, either cork or a lid of fired clay was pushed down the neck and then secured with a sealing of mortar. Modern study of ancient amphorae began after the Second World War, when the use of the aqualung led to the discovery of many wrecks carrying cargoes of amphorae (see celts, for example). Later research has concentrated on the identification of kiln sites, where the vessels were produced. As a result, a much clearer picture of the pattern of trade in goods, such as wine, has emerged. The term amphora also became an expression of capacity, a cubic Roman foot, about 26 l/7 gal, although the actual vessels did not by any means conform to this. Indeed, it is likely that goods, such as wine, were frequently sold wholesale by weight and there were formulae for converting the weight of different goods into capacity.