1800-Year-Old Roman Amphora of Olive Oil Contains Quote from the Legendary Virgil
A fragment of an amphora of olive oil, dated to the Roman period in southern Spain 1,800 years ago, has astounded the archaeological community at large. Plucked from the earth during prospecting activities in the Betica region, the presence of a written text was found on the piece, which in itself, is not particularly unusual. But this was not just any ordinary inscription. It was a quote from the famous Roman writer Virgil, the first time ever his words have been found on an olive oil amphora.
Virgil’s Words: Delving Into Agricultural Practice and Rural Life
When the sherd was found near the town of Hornachuelos in Córdoba, it seemed like an unremarkable find - a pottery sherd measuring just 6x8 centimeters (2.3x3.14 inches), nothing out of the ordinary. That is, until the researchers from OLEASTRO, a collaborative project involving the Universities of Cordoba, Seville, and Montpellier, successfully deciphered the inscription, revealing the following words:
“S vais avoniam glandemm arestapoqv tisaqv it”
Through careful analysis and overlaying, the researchers determined that the text corresponded to the seventh and eighth verses of the first book of "The Georgics”, according to their research paper published in The Journal of Roman Archaeology. This ancient poem, penned by the celebrated Roman poet Virgil in 29 BC, delves into agricultural practices and rural life. The lines read:
“Auoniam[pingui]glandem m[utauit]aresta, poq[ulaque][inuen]tisAqu[eloia][miscu]it [uuis]”
Analysis of the fragment of pottery with Virgil’s quote inscribed. (Iván González Tobar/Labex Archimède; University of Córdoba/Journal of Roman Archaeology)
Translated, these verses mean: "He changed the acorn of Aonia for the fruitful spike, and mixed water with the discovered grape."
“We thought it might be something quite exceptional because you hardly ever get more than a line or two of engravings on an amphora,” said Iván González Tobar, an archaeologist on the project, which was funded by the Labex Archimède research institute in Montpellier, France, part of Paul Valéry University. “This one had four or five lines. While we didn’t understand it, we thought it was quite special.”
Often considered the greatest poet of Rome’s ‘Golden Age’, and best known for authoring the epic Latin poem, The Aeneid, Virgil’s texts were used to teach children in school. Born in 70 BC and passing away in 19 BC, Publius Virgilius Maro, widely known as Virgil, stands among the eternal figures of literature, read through antiquity till today!
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Just a Regular Day at Work: Initial Discovery and (Non) Recognition
Initially, the find appeared unremarkable, considering the abundance of ancient Roman pottery that has been unearthed over the years. The towering Monte Testaccio in Rome, for instance, stands as a testament to the olive and wine industry of the Roman era, consisting entirely of discarded pottery fragments, according to a press release by the University of Cordoba .
The research team was initially unmoved when they received the fragment from Francisco Adame, a resident of Ochavillo, who stumbled upon it while walking near the village of Villalón (Fuente Palmera), in the vicinity of Arroyo de Tamujar.
The presence of inscriptions on the amphora did not come as a surprise either, as such markings were commonly found. These inscriptions, denoting details about the producers, quantities, and quality control, have played a crucial role in unraveling the history of agricultural trade during the Roman Empire.
Discovering an amphora fragment in the Guadalquivir River plain, a renowned hub for olive oil production and trade during the Empire, was also hardly unexpected. The region surrounding Corduba (present-day Cordoba) was responsible for a significant portion of the olive oil consumed in Rome, reports The Guardian. This fact is substantiated by the preserved remnants of amphorae bearing "Betica" seals found on Mount Testaccio.
Roman trade included olive oil and wine transported in amphorae. (Public Domain)
The Enigma of the Amphora: Deciphering Context and Space
Consequently, the initial impression of the amphora fragment with its inscriptions was that it was just another unremarkable piece lacking special significance. However, everything changed when the researchers began grasping the significance of the find. In their paper, they posit that the verses, discreetly etched on the lower portion of the amphora, were not originally intended for public view.
The researchers speculate that the author could have been a skilled laborer or even a child worker employed at the amphora manufacturing facility. Nevertheless, the inscription reveals a surprising level of education and literacy beyond what is typically attributed to workers of that time. The research paper hints at a certain level of literacy within the fertile Guadalquivir area.
“To be honest, it took a while because there were some spelling mistakes that held us back from seeing what it was straight away,” said González Tobar, who is now an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona. “But we did eventually get there.”
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However, the discovery of Virgil's verses on an amphora raises intriguing questions. Why would they be found on an amphora instead of a tablet or other similar objects? Additionally, why were lines from "The Georgics" chosen instead of passages from "The Aeneid"?
Pondering these queries, the researchers involved in the project began to realize that this tiny pottery fragment was out of the ordinary. For the record, it had never been documented before that Virgil's verses were inscribed on an amphora intended for the oil trade, reports Arkeonews.
“There are quite a lot of bricks that have been found with texts from Virgil on them because we think they’d been used for teaching before being used for building,” said González Tobar. “But nothing’s been found on amphorae.”
The identity of the writer remains a subject of speculation, with several possibilities proposed by the authors. They posit that it could have been the work of a literate specialized worker in the manufacturing establishment or someone from nearby villages associated with an aristocratic family that owned the factory.
Another hypothesis is that a young worker, given the documented prevalence of child labor in such establishments, might have inscribed the verses. Further research and documentation, or the potential discovery of other similarly located amphorae might be more revealing!
“We really can’t say for sure why the lines were written, but we do know that they appear on a part of the amphora that wouldn’t have been seen. Maybe a worker there wanted to show them to a colleague – they could have been done by an adult or a child. What we do know is that this was done inside an amphora factory, and that the lines were probably written from memory,” concluded González Tobar.
Top image: The fragment of pottery with the Virgil quote overlaid. Source: Iván González Tobar/Labex Archimède; University of Córdoba
By Sahir Pandey
Altuntas, L. 2023. Found in Spain a poem by Virgil engraved in a Roman amphora. Available at: https://arkeonews.net/found-in-spain-a-poem-by-virgil-engraved-in-a-roman-amphora/.
Jones, S. 2023. Virgil quote found on fragment of Roman jar unearthed in Spain. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2023/jun/21/virgil-quote-found-on-fragment-of-roman-jar-unearthed-in-spain.
Tobar, I.G., et al. 2023. Las Geórgicas de Virgilio in figlinis: a propósito de un grafito ante cocturam sobre un ánfora olearia bética. Journal of Roman Archaeology. Available at: https://doi:10.1017/S1047759423000156.
University of Cordoba. 2023. An archaeological first: A poem by Virgil appears on the remnants of a Roman oil amphora. Available at: https://phys.org/news/2023-06-archaeological-poem-virgil-remnants-roman.html.