People have been enjoying wine for millennia. But how did ancient peoples transport their wine from one place to another?
How did the ancient Greeks, for example, transport wine from the vineyards of Thasos to the drunken symposia of Athens?
Before the advent of modern glassmaking techniques in the 18th century, glass bottles were too brittle for overseas shipping. Animal skin and wooden containers didn't gain popularity until the early middle ages.
For thousands of years, the most practical way of transporting large quantities of wine was the amphora, a simple ceramic container with two handles, often around half a meter tall, often holding around 40 litres of fluid.
Amphorae were easy and cheap to produce, easily stackable, and you could stick them into the ground to stand them up. This made them a perfect transportation vessel for everything: grapes, oil, wine, olives, grain, fish, water. You name it, the ancients shipped it in amphorae.
Archeologists today get particularly excited when they find amphorae, particularly at the bottom of the sea, because their contents can tell us a lot about where the amphorae came from and where it was going. 2,000 year old amphorae have been found in shipwrecks with their contents preserved and intact.
No one was more keen on amphorae as a method of storage and transportation than the Romans. Historians estimate that in the second century AD, Rome was importing an average of 280,000 amphorae of olive oil every year.
Because amphorae were so cheap to produce, it often didn't make economic sense to send them back to the sender. In most cases, the amphorae would be destroyed and used in construction as concrete or landfill.
The globular shaped amphorae favoured by the Romans for transporting olive oil broke into rounded fragments that were harder to recycle, so these were often simply thrown onto a rubble pile. Disposing of 280,000 amphorae every year, as you can probably imagine, resulted in some pretty considerable rubble piles.
Rome's most popular rubble pile, Monte Testaccio, accumulated so much amphora debris that it grew nearly 35 meters high and reached a circumference of almost one kilometre (giving it an estimated volume of 580,000 cubic metres, or debris from nearly 53 million amphorae).
The area around Monte Testaccio was left largely abandoned after the fall of Rome, and it wasn't until the 13th century that Romans began to find uses for it again. Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Monte Testaccio became the site of Christian celebrations like the pre-Lenten Carnival, during which locals would hold lavish feasts at the foot of the hill. During the Renaissance, builders quarried Monte Testaccio for building materials and landfill. The builders of St. Peter's Basilica removed so much material from Monte Testaccio that it lowered the hill's height by several feet.
In the 17th century, Roman winemakers discovered something very curious about Monte Testaccio. They realized that the inside of the hill for some reason became cool in the summer.
As it turns out, Monte Testaccio's porousness allows air to pass over the rain-moistened amphora shards inside, effectively making it a massive natural refrigerator.
More than a dozen winemakers dug caves into the side of Monte Testaccio and began cellaring their wines inside the hill. Monte Testaccio soon became the site of the Ottobrate festival, an annual celebration of the grape harvest featuring singing, dancing and drinking.
It may have taken more than a millenium, but the amphorae of Monte Testaccio finally became useful to Romans again. ♦