I’m really enjoying a conversation at the clayart listserver about the origins of the amphora. I’m printing all posts, and following all links.

Here are some details I have scribbled in my notebook at the library, just because they seemed interesting:

Different shapes of amphorae seem to determine year and region, but more importantly,  what they were intended to hold.  Wine amphorae held 41 quarts, and the “amphora quadrantal” was a unit of measure in the Roman empire. 

Apparently amphorae intended for liquids were lined with resin (because they were porous) or beeswax, and sealed with wet leather, wax, plugs of fired clay, and cork where available. Olive oil was a big commodity for the shipping trade, as was a fermented fish paste called “garum”. Garum was made from fish heads and entrails, fermented by the ocean to spare citizens from the smell, and sounds simply horriffic. Still, I can sort of picture it as anchovy paste (which I like) or the fish sauce in Pad Thai. And my prof pointed out that salt was taxed, and Garum was salty and used like soy sauce.

Walnuts were apparently shipped and stored in amphorae, as were olives, grains and dried fruits — likely due to our friend the mouse, who I credit with the boom in pottery around the time folks figured out agriculture. I suspect those nut/fruit pots had a mouth large enough to admit a hand and an arm.

Amphorae first appeared around the Syrian/Lebanese coast in the 15th century BCE, and apparently were made until about the 7th century.

Some were as much as 5 feet tall, but more around 18 inches. Little bitty ones under a foot long were called “amphoriskoi”.

I kind of do understand the pointy base on the long, rudely made ones, and the “peg foot” at the bottom of the larger bellied ones “Corinth” ones.  When I hefted my gallon of olive oil to make pesto today, w/ shoulders sore from wedging, I considered what 40-some quarts of it would weigh, and how I might lift it. One theory “out there” is that the point at the base (remember 5 footers were not the norm) was where one hand could grab for balance when the other hand had the handle or rim. These were basically shipping crates, and the way I figure it, they were passed hand to hand to load into a ship’s belly, and again to unload ( plus maybe hauled up by ropes.)

But the peg foot on big household storage jars makes sense to me in another way.  I had to move my rain barrel yesterday from its spot under the studio eaves, and it’s too heavy to lift, too spillable to roll. Five gallon carboys for homemade wine are the same deal.  The only way for me to get it going is to walk it along its bottom, rotating it so that it “walks” on its bottom rim. Wider top/smaller bottom would make that easier. Maybe that little hoof bottom also made it easier to lean a heavy container in the corner of a room, and better, the pointy shape would make it tippy, easier to pour out contents into a bowl or smaller vessel (or reach down inside, after fruit, in a big one) without having to navigate around bottom corners. Maybe?

Maybe they were not ideal, just plentiful and recycled for household use. Some amphorae were apparently reused as cinerary urns, or as coffins for small infants. There’s a poem there, somewhere.

Later amphorae had a rim that hung down over the tops of the handles, attached. Maybe that had to do with how they were sealed? Cork, instead of leather? Or is it a clue to how they were made? Upside down, on the wheelhead, handles attached and then the rim wheel-trimmed?

After the mid 4th century, stamps were impressed at the top of the handle curve or at its lower attachment. Letters, ligatures, monagrams, etc. may have identified the contents (though some argue the various shapes did that) or the merchant who was shipping them —  and there were pictoral symbols supposed to be potters marks. So maybe there was a certain amount of artisan-attitude in producing these? Pride in authorship, even for a simple “utilitarian” vessel? or maybe just a punched time card, to assure being paid by the pot when the community kiln was unloaded.

One set of amphorae that were analyzed were found to be made of clay containing quartz silt and chert (what the heck is chert?) and the red and grey clay inclusions were mudstone and tuffite. (again… ???) 

The part that really tickled me — being married to a biology geek who thinks diatoms are amazing — was that they found microfossils of radiolaria, which is also found in the roof tiles in Corinth kilns, in sculpture there, and other forms of  “coarseware”.

My brain is really rolling with ideas. Things without bases, like the boar’s head drinking rhyton at the Toledo Museum of Art — like Don Davis’s tilted bowls — like the mango shaped cups I made in Polly Ann Martin’s workshop, which sat in a little leaf-nest base and required my kids to return their empty smoothie cups to the kitchen in order to put them down, when empty. Brilliant mommy move, that one .

I have been looking at the carrot amphora in the documentation, the glass beets in this month’s American Craft mag, and thinking about storage — how a parsnip and a person came up with the same shape to store the winter’s starch and sweet.

And I have been throwing, early in the morning, late at night, whenever I can get out the back door to the studio. I have an enormous bucket of failed attempts, several promising parts-to-be-assembled taking forever to stiffen in the humid, rainy fall weather, and one that I tripped and dropped on its side, a bellied, pointy thing with throwing rings, which now looks so remarkably like a bee larva that I have put it aside to think about later.

It kills me that in high school I spent a week traveling from Greek island to Greek island, but had more eye for the sailors than the pottery…

I have learned by throwing that: the shoulder/neck juncture of an inverted amphora won’t support much weight, whether assembled parts or thrown coils. Some time under a heat lamp didn’t help much in later attempts, and I don’t have the patience to wait the appropriate amount of time.

A small amphora can be thrown as a very tall closed form, and as always, once the air is trapped inside, a potter can take great liberties with shape without losing stability — including making a rim at the bottom, before cutting it loose from the bat.

A three part thrown sequence of middle – attached to top, with or without rim — then inverted to add a pointy bottom seems to be the best plan for very large ones, though I will spend some time tomorrow morning scheming a tall cone shaped chuck for the ones I threw upside down. I am finding that a coarse, chunky clay feels right for the project, and will be firing up the pug mill tomorrow for more.

A little amphora has hung on a fat nail outside my studio door for almost a decade, but it’s dorky, one handled, has a pouring spout and weighs a ton. I made another two years ago that stands on a high shelf unglazed, a yard tall but with a definite list to starboard. This time around, though, I have a head full of reading, a folder full of clayart posts and printed images, and the memory of this shipwreck stacked with amphorae that blew my little potter mind once, in an exhibit in a Connecticut maritime museum.  Plus I have hands with more practice, and a professor who has assigned me to make (and then interpret) a historical pot.

Thanks to Vince Pitelka for having fired me up on historic pots for the first time in an Ancient Clay workshop at Appalachian Center for Craft. I made a little stirrup handled, shiny black, terra sig frog “effigy jar” in a smothered bonfire that week, and it has been sitting on my studio windowsill ever since. This summer, with the window open, the grape vine that covers one side of my studio grew in between the panes and wrapped a thick green tendril around its handle. I didn’t notice until I had to close the window against the cold, and the frog hung (still hangs) suspended in the plant’s little spiral fist…

Feeling like there are too many ideas and too little time… I’m off to bed.