Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Why Things End

Studies on the Decline and Fall of the Amphora Phenomenon

2023 - 2028
Mink van IJzendoorn


This project investigates the underexplored question of why the ‘Amphora Phenomenon’ disappeared. For millennia, amphorae were the main transport containers of Antiquity and a defining feature of ancient life. This packaging mode was pivotal to storing, shipping and using wine, olive oil and other goods across Afro-Eurasia. So, how and why did amphora traditions break down? My research investigates this container’s obsolescence by studying how amphorae, through their (waning) socioeconomic affordances, stopped being part of the last communities making and using them. Amphora-affordances constitute key containerisation purposes: utility as handy vessels, protecting contents and communicating value. I investigate where, when and how these affordances lessened, leading to this phenomenon’s end.

Amphorae have gotten much scholarly attention as proxies for reconstructing past economic performance and social interaction. However, the ending of the ‘Amphora Phenomenon’, a watershed in premodern commerce, remains uncharted. A comprehensive picture of the links between the amphora’s diminishing role, its final occurrences and the emergence of alternative forms of containerisation is absent. This interdisciplinary research will fill that lacuna. It combines SSH with Sciences by bringing together unintegrated archaeological data and novel scientific analyses with an innovative methodology inspired by exciting theoretical developments concerning human-thing-entanglement in object-oriented studies.

Amphorae will not be considered passive artefactual proxies of human activities or fixed representations of (cultural) identities. Rather, through their (material) properties, amphorae influenced human behaviour and experience in profound and intricate ways. Amphorae were impactful objects embedded in a world of shifting technological and cultural realities. I study the Amphora Phenomenon as a containerisation praxis in its final stages by investigating the functioning of the latest amphora generations. My theoretically-informed methodology will be applied to case-study material from the medieval Aegean and Iberia. These regional ‘final occurrences’ provide the most-provocative examples of this phenomenon’s disentanglement, disappearance and related effects. I will (archaeometrically) investigate the nature of late Aegean and Iberian amphorae and document their archaeological contexts. Subsequently, I will explore and assess a plurality of (non)human factors potentially contributing to amphora-obsolescence. This ensures an in-depth inquiry into the multifaceted problem of amphora-ending.

More broadly, my project provides archaeological reflections on the causes and effects of innovation. Breakthroughs and breakdowns are two sides of the same coin. Change never happens in a void. Innovation also entails ‘creative destruction’: entrenched technologies and deeply-valued traditions get challenged by ‘the new’ that may supplant the ‘old stuff’. In archaeology, beginnings (‘the first’, ‘the earliest’) are studied very often; not endings. Such disinterest is undeserved because a ‘sense of ending’ is an important lived reality in the past and today. I address that imbalance by explicitly focusing on the end of a major phenomenon in Mediterranean history. I consider the reasons and implications for Mediterranean societies losing/abandoning a successful, widespread and age-old container tradition. My research will open-up a fresh perspective for amphora studies. Additionally, it contributes to wider debates on change and (dis)continuation; and the question why things end.

A late Iberian amphora (Huis van Hilde, inventory number: 11069-01).
A late Iberian amphora (Huis van Hilde, inventory number: 11069-01).

Research question

  1. What are the characteristics of the last-recognisable amphora generations?
  2. How and why did these amphora traditions break down?
  3. What was the course of their disappearance?
  4. What were the societal implications of the Amphora Phenomenon’s end?
  5. Is ‘ending’ (vis-à-vis innovation) a fruitful way to investigate changes in material culture and human-thing-entanglement?
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