Ancient containers

Goods (also called ‘commodities’) have always been shipped either as loose units or as dry or liquid bulk. Ancient units were amphorae, dolia, barrels and sacks that could be placed on a ship, a cart, a camel or a donkey[1]. Until 100 years ago, this cargo, called ‘break bulk’, had to be loaded on board almost individually. Wooden ‘pallets’ moved by forklifts were introduced during World War II. They were quickly followed by larger ‘containers’ made of steel providing better protection and easier transportation as they could be placed on a ship (sea and river), a train and a truck. As a matter of fact, containers opened the way to ‘globalisation’.

Containers were standardised to optimise storage on land, and on board ships and trucks. This aim has been achieved quite well in modern times (so far), taking around 50 years to reach right around the planet, but was not achieved in ancient times, since many different types of amphorae were used across the Mediterranean area, which is fortunate as it enabled experts in ‘amphorology’ to determine where and when amphorae found in wrecks were made.

Many different types of amphorae have been identified, depending on their date and place of production. The first amphorae were used for transporting wine and date from around 350 BC (the so-called ‘Greco-Italic‘ type). Millions of them were produced, especially during the Roman Empire.

A full amphora quadrantal (containing olive oil, wine or fish sauce) weights around 50 kg, around half of which is the tare. Egyptian grain was transported in sacks of one Ptolemaic artaba (39 litres) with a unit weight of wheat of ca. 30 kg. Wooden oak barrels (500 to 1000 litres) gradually took over from amphorae (and dolia) for storing wine during the Roman Empire.

Amphorae and other goods were unloaded by ship-to-ship transfer from larger to smaller ships, or by beaching the ship, or by stevedores in large ports with adequate infrastructure. Following measurement, the goods were stored in warehouses (horrea).

The impressive Monte Testaccio dump in Rome contains over 50 million amphorae, mainly Spanish and North African Dressel 20 olive oil amphorae. Perhaps, these amphorae were too fatty and the smell of rancid oil prevented any further use, as a result of which they were disposed of. An internal coating of vegetal pitch was used to seal the walls of wine and garum amphorae, but not for oil amphorae because oil dissolves the pitch and would thus become unsuitable for consumption[2]. Hence, pitched amphorae could be reused, but unpitched oil amphorae could not.

As wine amphorae were not dumped in such large numbers, one might think they were reused, but as Pena (2021) puts it, “in the current state of our knowledge, it seems fair to say that the evidence for the reuse of amphoras as packaging containers in the Roman world is scattered, uneven, and less than substantial.”[3].


[1] DE GRAAUW, A., 2017, “From Amphora to TEU: Journey of a container – An engineer’s perspective”, Portus Limen Project workshop, Rome, January 2017.

[2] ANDRÉ, J., 1964, “La résine et la poix dans l’antiquité. Technique et terminologie”, in L’antiquité classique, Tome 33, fasc. 1, 1964. (p 86-97).

[3] PENA, J. Th., 2021, “The reuse of transport amphoras as packaging containers in the Roman world: an overview”, in “Roman Amphora Contents Reflecting on the Maritime Trade of Foodstuffs in Antiquity”, Cadiz, 2015, (22 p).