Story and photos by Manos Angelakis
Sea floor amphorae courtesy of Yannis Zanoudakis
Erithromorphus decorated wine jar courtesy NY Metropolitan Museum
An ancient clay container dating back to 8000 BC used to transport and store liquids in the Mediterranean, has been revived and found a new use in modern winemaking; to vinify and age wines.
The Greeks, Romans and Phoenicians and other Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age cultures used very large jars or double handled amphorae made from fired clay as a transport and storage medium. The amphora shape was designed so that the pointed bottom of the vessel could be stuck in soft earth or sand to keep the container upright while the double handles on top were used to lift the container and as anchors to tie a cover over the mouth.
Double handled amphorae were used to store or ship wine or olive oil from a production region on the Greek or Roman mainland as well as the shores of the Phoenician region in what is now Syria, Israel and Jordan i.e. Palestine to other markets across the Mediterranean. On shipboard, amphorae were either kept upright or were stacked on their side in the ship’s hold.
In use, the vessel allows for a small amount of liquid to evaporate through the porous sides so that the wine becomes concentrated and at the same time gets micro-oxygenated, an important step in wine aging. Most ancient potters used to embed a mark or signature on one of the handles; an early attempt to verify who made it, as well as a marketing tool for ancient potters. An average amphora used for transportation would hold about 30 liters of liquid; a larger, flat-bottomed container used strictly for storage, would hold as much as 50 to 60 liters.
A decorated i.e. painted and/or sculpted double handled jar with black figures on a red background or red figures on a black background was used during celebratory symposia (the Attic Greek word symposium means drinking together) of the Athenian and Corinthian upper classes to mix wine with an amount of water so that the participants could drink larger quantities of the wine without getting drunk as getting drunk and disorderly was considered crass and an indication of being of very low class and undesirable as company by the aristocracy.
Today, in visits to ancient sites around the Mediterranean like the palace of Knossos in Crete or the excavations of the City of Corinth, one can see many large storage containers called “pithos” in Greek en situ in the basements of ancient dwellings. Later on, the Romans replaced the relatively fragile amphorae with much sturdier wooden barrels that could hold a larger amount of liquid and can be rolled on their side without fear of breaking; they were the progenitor of modern barriques and tonneau used in winemaking.
Modern amphorae are good sized fired clay, stoneware or concrete containers that hold about 40 to 100 liters of liquid, either wine or beer. They do not have pointed bottoms as the cellars have concrete slabs with drainage channels (in case the amphora breaks) that the container sits on. Nowadays some Spanish wineries also use very large hollowed out boulders to ferment and start aging the wines, instead of fired or glazed clay or concrete vessels.
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