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Trash Talk Volume 62 Number 2, March/April 2009
by Jarrett A. Lobell

Sorting through a mountain of pottery to track the Roman oil trade


Each day excavators remove bucketfuls of amphorae from the 150-foot-tall Monte Testaccio. The artificial hill is made up almost entirely of olive oil amphorae from the ancient Roman province of Baetica in southern Spain. (Pasquale Sorrentino)

In the middle of Rome's trendiest neighborhood, surrounded by sushi restaurants and nightclubs with names like Rodeo Steakhouse and Love Story, sits the ancient world's biggest garbage dump--a 150-foot-tall mountain of discarded Roman amphorae, the shipping drums of the ancient world. It takes about 20 minutes to walk around Monte Testaccio, from the Latin testa and Italian cocci, both meaning "potsherd." But despite its size--almost a mile in circumference--it's easy to walk by and not really notice unless you are headed for some excellent pizza at Velavevodetto, a restaurant literally stuck into the mountain's side. Most local residents don't know what's underneath the grass, dust, and scattering of trees. Monte Testaccio looks like a big hill, and in Rome people are accustomed to hills.


Project director José Remesal cleans dust from a handle stamp that he believes names the oil's owner, who also may have had kilns to manufacture the containers. Archaeologists have excavated more than 100 of these kiln sites across southern Spain. (Pasquale Sorrentino)

Although a garbage dump may lack the attraction of the Forum or Colosseum, I have come to Rome to meet the team excavating Monte Testaccio and to learn how scholars are using its evidence to understand the ancient Roman economy. As the modern global economy depends on light sweet crude, so too the ancient Romans depended on oil--olive oil. And for more than 250 years, from at least the first century A.D., an enormous number of amphorae filled with olive oil came by ship from the Roman provinces into the city itself, where they were unloaded, emptied, and then taken to Monte Testaccio and thrown away. In the absence of written records or literature on the subject, studying these amphorae is the best way to answer some of the most vexing questions concerning the Roman economy--How did it operate? How much control did the emperor exert over it? Which sectors were supported by the state and which operated in a free market environment or in the private sector?

"So, professor, just how many amphorae are there?" I ask José Remesal of the University of Barcelona, co-director of the Monte Testaccio excavations. It's the same question that must occur to everyone who visits the site when they realize that the crunching sounds their footfalls make are not from walking on fallen leaves, but on pieces of amphorae. (Don't worry, even the small pieces are very sturdy.) Remesal replies in his deep baritone, "Something like 25 million complete ones. Of course, it's difficult to be exact," he adds with a typical Mediterranean shrug.

Jarrett A. Lobell is executive editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.