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Mink van IJzendoorn investigates the end of amphorae with a PhD in the Humanities grant

This year, an NWO PhD in the Humanities grant went to Mink van IJzendoorn, enabling him to investigate the disappearance of amphorae. ‘We take means of packaging and shipment for granted, but they are so ingrained in our daily lives, they are actually crucial.’

The Amphora Phenomenon and its ‘end’

For thousands of years, amphorae were the dominant transport container to store and move liquids like wine, olive oil and other goods. ‘We never stopped consuming wine and oil, yet we do not have amphorae anymore,’ Mink notes. ‘Eventually, people abandoned amphorae and relied on alternative containers instead. The reasons behind this transition and its implications have never been really scrutinised. I want to uncover this problem.’

Photo: R. Tousain, Monumenten en Archeologie Amsterdam

Out of human (inter)action, but not human design

Amphorae emerged during the Bronze Age. The eastern Mediterranean saw an increase in maritime connectivity combined with the spread of viticulture and olive oil traditions. These intersecting developments shaped the evolution of containerisation suited for sea-based transport of perishable fluids.

Although amphorae look ‘perfect’, nobody designed them out-of-the-blue. No genius inventor nor any ‘civilisation’ created amphorae; they didn’t begin with Rome, nor did they end with the Empire. Amphorae emerged from trail-and-error processes - until a set of morphological features was popularised and remained dominant for ages. ‘Early amphorae used by Phoenician merchants would not be too dissimilar to Byzantine merchants separated by thousands of years.’ Following late Antiquity, after being in continuous use for millennia, amphorae started to disappear but persisted, only to completely vanish by early ‘Modernity’ – much later than is often presumed.

Containerisation matters

The use of amphorae fizzled out at some point, but the need to preserve and export foodstuff persevered. So, what ‘replaced’ amphorae? ‘A conventional view is that the amphorae were simply outcompeted by wooden barrels,’ Mink notes. ‘However, there are problems with this explanation. Firstly, barrels and amphorae coexisted for centuries. So why did this transition not happen earlier? Secondly, barrels seem superior (less fragile and heavy) but are quite difficult and costly to make compared to amphorae. Moreover, wood reacts to organic liquids much more than pottery, causing vast differences in preservability.’

Late Iberian amphorae recovered from the 'Piskruikenwrak' in the Wadden Sea near Texel. These containers originally imported carrying probably olive oil or wine, were later reused to contain urine - possibly related to textile or leather industries. Photo: W. Stellingwerf, Archeologie West-Friesland

Innovation isn’t everything

The way modern people look at history has a problem. ‘There’s a ‘pro-innovation bias’. Today, we often welcome change as something good or inevitable; that is how we look at the past.’ Mink explains. ‘Archaeologists focus on the first of something (earliest metallurgy, the rise of farming) and its impact. But I think that’s not how past people experienced change. Humans can tend to stick with what they know and feel threatened by the unfamiliar new, even if it might be ‘better’, rationally and retrospectively.’

Object-oriented logistics and path dependency

There are good reasons to stick with what you know and have. ‘Many maritime networks catered to amphorae. If you switched to another container, you would have to disentangle your entire infrastructure,’ Mink explains. ‘Think about our globalised transportation system, completely centred around a standardised container to which ships, harbours, railways, warehouses and measurement units have been tailored. If some better container is proposed, all these other elements would have to be changed too – a huge undertaking.’

As amphorae prove, exchange systems dependent on a single object-class can be successful. Yet, once established, it is hard to abandon the object when you want to adapt the system; not a part, but the whole ‘order of things’ needs changing.

Case studies

Considering how long-term and widespread the Amphora Phenomenon was, Mink has to limit his scope. ‘I investigate the ‘latest’ amphora generations from two case-studies: 1. The Iberian Peninsula and its overseas connections, focusing on the Low Countries. 2. The Aegean and its overseas connections, especially the Black Sea. Both similarities and regional dissimilarities are worth exploring.

XRF- and residue-analysis

Mink’s amphora study includes archaeological sciences. ‘To determine their geographic origins, I perform XRF-analysis with the help of Dr. Dennis Braekmans. Additionally, I include residue-analysis. This tells us what the amphorae carried and, hence, what their role and value were. Results may surprise us.’

With this grant, Mink van IJzendoorn will be able to work on his project for the next five years, supervised by Prof. Miguel John Versluys and Prof. Pieter ter Keurs, with the help of an international team of various experts.

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