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Archaeologist Mink van IJzendoorn receives LUF grant to investigate late amphorae

Amphorae are usually associated with the ancient Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans. ‘​​​​​​​Yet, in some cases, such as Byzantium, amphorae existed for centuries after Antiquity. Another, even later instance of the amphora's afterlife can be found in the Iberian Peninsula, from where the latest specimens date to the 18th century!’ clarifies Mink van IJzendoorn introducing us to the topic of his grant-awarded research, part of his PhD project, supervised by Prof. Dr. Miguel John Versluys.

An iconic transport container

Familiar to most archaeologists, amphorae do not need a special introduction. Key in Mediterranean travel and trade, they were ideal for carrying large quantities of foodstuffs, especially liquids, over long distances. Their functionality was critical to communities as they needed a reliable means of transportation for wine, olive oil and other bulk goods in high demand.

Amphorae were the "workhorses" of globalisation, like shipping containers today, exemplifies Mink, a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Archaeology. He was recently awarded a Fund for Roman Archaeology LUF grant, which will allow him to study a specific group of late Iberian amphorae – the so-called botijas peruleras.

A late Iberian amphora (Huis van Hilde, inventory number: 4714-06).
A late Iberian amphora (Huis van Hilde, inventory number: 4714-06).

Late amphorae and globalisation

But what are botijas? As amphorae disappeared from the world scene, they continued to be used in some regions. Their area of origin was colonial Spain, which produced these vessels a millennium after the end of the West-Roman Empire. These amphorae were used to export oil and wine to overseas territories across the globe. Paradoxically, these last members of the amphora phenomenon – circulating in an era when this age-old tradition is often considered long obsolete – became truly global commodities. Botijas reached not only north-western Europe and the Americas but also East Africa and even Japan! Mink points out.

Change, innovation and decline

However, eventually, they too went out of fashion, which raises the question of what replaced amphorae as a transport container and how this transition took place. The implications of the introduction and popularisation of other container types on contemporary societies that had long relied on amphorae in their economic and cultural practices are essential to understand.

According to Mink, this is the central issue: People did not just "switch" from one form of packaging to another. When amphora industries stopped, a highly successful, long-lasting, widespread form of containerisation ended. To comprehend this transition better, we should do more than point to innovations or historical events as causing the amphora's decline. We should also study the process of their disappearance itself.

What is the plan?

The project aims to re-examine preestablished theories on the origins of these amphorae, investigate their potential connections to other amphorae and Late Roman traditions, and analyse their contents. To tackle this, the awarded funds will have multiple goals, most notably for enabling XRF analyses for provenance research and GC-MS analyses for residue studies. These investigations are vital to shredding the mystery surrounding the (diminishing) purpose and value of these last amphorae over time and in different places.

The next steps

Even though this project is envisioned as a small-scale 'try-out', Mink has big plans for future research. When proven in generating valuable results, I aim to expand this research strategy to more late amphora finds from Europe and beyond, including the Mediterranean and more distant regions, he explains.

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