Note: this appeared in the Classics newsletter of the Faculty of Arts and Science, University of Toronto, 4.1, April 1996. Note that the date of Dr. Grace's death has here been corrected from 1941 [printed] to 1994.
Ever since Jacques Cousteau's film The Silent World in the late 50s, Greek and Roman transport amphoras (two-handled clay jars with pointed "toes") found in ancient wrecks have had a slight aura of the romantic and mysterious. But it was the shift in archaeological emphasis from the monumental and the written to everyday life which produced the recent expansion in amphora studies.
At her death in May 1994, Virginia Grace left an enormous archive of amphora information, as well as publications showing the use of amphoras in archaeological dating; she once dated a building in the Athenian Agora to the year 183 BC from the five different kinds of amphora fragments found in its foundations. Amphora studies also give more accurate information about who was trading with whom, and when, than the official versions in inscriptions sometimes afford.
This year the AMPHORAS Project has set up a World Wide Web site on the Internet to make available material from the amphora database created by Carolyn Koehler and Philippa Matheson, based on Dr. Grace's archive. The URL is:
Included is a bibliography of over 1000 items, translations from the works of Russian scholars of "ceramic epigraphy," and passages in Greek literature showing everyday (and some peculiar) uses of these ancient equivalents of olive oil tins and wine bottles. There is a paper on the Hellenistic export of wine from Knidos in Asia Minor to Corinth. eventually there will be records of thousands of individual published jars and stamps with a search program to find parallels for jars from new excavations and in museums.
Links to many other Internet sites (excavation reports, course materials, etc) provide images of amphoras as well. The underwater techniques illustrated at a Web site in France, for instance, might amaze Jacques Cousteau, but in the study of the jars -- dating the potters and magistrates named in the stamps, analysing the different things they carried, charting the places they came from and went to -- both the mystery, and the romance, remain.