Earliest Pottery Vessels

Ceramic vessels survive for thousands of years because they are fired in kilns at high temperatures which transforms clay into a hard, rock-like material that is resistant to corrosion and decomposition. Therefore pottery provides the archaeological record to study various aspects of amphorae design, their contents and their use in commerce and trade. Each of the clay amphorae described below is unique in its geographical location, purpose, use, and cultural history.
Qvevri (Georgia)

Ancient Amphorae: Qvevri & Dolium

Qvevri (Georgia)

Georgia has the longest continuous winemaking tradition dating back 6.000 years. Their ancient handcrafted clay vessels, known as Qvevri, are the oldest in the world. The large clay vessels which hold 2,000 liters are shaped like inverse teardrops. They are fired in huge handmade kilns, cooled and aged. They are lined with beeswax and buried in the ground. The manufacturing process is passed down from generation to generation. Qvevri are used for fermenting, aging and storing wine.

The traditional winemaking method is long-maceration with crushed whole bunches of grapes placed in the Qvevri to ferment and settle out for a period of five to six months. The process creates wines with a color range from amber to orange because of the extended skin contact with wine. The traditional Qvevri winemaking method was identified as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2013. Ancient winemaking techniques are practiced in villages, using ancient grape varieties which grow in the region. The ancient traditions are an enduring part of the Georgian cultural and musical identity, expressed in their oral traditions and songs.

The clay from the Kakheti Valley, located near the base of the Caucasus Mountains, has a limestone base with a range of minerals. This area is home to 80% of Georgian wine production today.

Dolium (Ancient Judea)

Dolium (Ancient Judea)

In Ancient Judea, large oval clay vessels (Dolia) were made of fired clay, each with a large round opening at the top and a flat base. After firing they were buried in the ground and used for fermenting and storing wine. The handmade vessel, known as a Dolium, was often six feet in height and held over 2500 liters. It is similar to the Qvevri. Dolium were often made by itinerant potters who set up temporary workshops and moved from region to region.

The Canaanites planted vineyards and produced quality grapes in the area. They also created the first systematic method of winemaking. These wines were exported to Egypt and throughout the Mediterranean. Wine became a sacred drink in Palestine around 2500 BCE.

The Romans used these vessels as storage containers for wine, olive oil and cereals. In 2008 fishermen working near the island of Gorgona in Italy discovered an ancient globe-shaped 2,000 litre Roman Dolium dating to the first century A.D.

Amphorae used in European Winemaking

Anfore or Giare (Italy)

Archaeological evidence found in shipwrecks and tombs includes amphorae dating back 2700 years ago. The Etruscans dominated central Italy from the eighth to the fifth centuries BCE. They manufactured amphorae with two handles from various clay materials ranging in color from red and orange to yellowish-red and cream. Amphorae were used throughout the Mediterranean region for storing and transporting wine starting in 700 BCE. The Romans continued the tradition and later expanded their trade routes into Europe and the Iberian peninsula.

Tuscany has been the center of clay vessel production for generations. Today, each handmade Anfore (Giare) takes several weeks to produce by hand using local clay and the coil technique. The shape is typically oval tapering to a flat bottom.

In Italy, Anfore are used for wine fermentation and aging of Italian varietals. Many Anfore are exported to winemakers around the world, including the amphorae winemakers in San Luis Obispo County.

Elisabetta Foradori who is the well-known viticulturist in Trentino in Northern Italy states, “there is a direct transfer of the message of the terroir from the grape to the wine with incredible purity and energy.” She has been using clay Anfore in her winery to age four of her seven wines. She purchases the Anfore from Juan Padilla who uses three types of clay to construct them. After firing the Anfore, Juan who is a fifth-generation craftsman, ages (matures) them for two years before delivering them to the winemaker.


Tinaja (Spain)

Tinaja (Spain)

This large egg-shaped clay vessel was used to store and ferment wine in central and southern Spain. It is placed above ground and referred to as a cellar amphora. The origins are not known.

Grapevines have been cultivated since between 4000 BCE and 3000 BCE in Spain, but the origin of winemaking has not yet been documented. In the second century, under Roman rule, Spanish wines were exported in amphorae throughout the Roman empire to southeastern Gaul, Loire Valley, Brittany, Normandy and England. Roman troops guarding the frontier in Germany also received Spanish wines. Tinaja are used by a few contemporary winemakers in La Mancha, Valdepeñas and Montilla-Moriles.

Talha (Portugal)

Talha (Portugal)

Wine has been made in Portugal since 2000 BCE. The Romans influenced winemaking traditions by introducing clay vessels, or Talhas as they are known in Portugal, more than 2,000 years ago. The Talha was unique in that it was designed to be the container for wine in all three stages—fermentation, aging, and storage. Alentejo in Southern Portugal is the historic center of pottery in the Iberian peninsula.

The potters developed a unique amphora-like vessel made of local clay found in Alentejo and lined it with wax. It was formed as a tall inverse teardrop shape, wide at the top, narrowing to a flat round bottom. Alentejo is also famous for its groves of cork oaks from which material for the corks we use in wine bottles is harvested.

The winemaker filled the vessel with whole grape clusters for ambient yeast fermentation. The grapes were occasionally punched down through the opening which was left uncovered. When fermentation was complete, the grape cap would rise to the wide part of the Talha near the top as the wine sank underneath, filling the volume of the vessel. The Talha was topped off by pouring olive oil into the opening to prevent oxidation or contamination of the wine. The olive oil forms a layer that floats on top of the wine.

Wine is served by the cup or carafe from a small hole with a stopper near the bottom of the vessel.

A small group of winemakers in Portugal are using Talhas to make wine following ancient techniques.

Roman Amphorae

Roman Amphorae

The word amphora dates back to the Greek era. The name refers to the amphi-phoreus meaning “carried on both sides.” The origins developed in the Eastern Mediterranean on the north Lebanese-Syrian coastal region around the fifteenth century BCE and were adopted by the Phoenicians and the Greeks. There are two types of amphora—the amphora designed with a neck at a sharp angle and the one piece amphora designed with the neck and body forming a continuous curve.

The term is now used to describe a Roman pottery vessel that is large, shaped in cylindrical or globular shape with two vertical handles and a spike at the bottom. The Roman amphora shapes may have developed from their contacts with the Greeks in southern Italy and Sicily. The earliest forms were manufactured in Italy initially. By the middle of the first century BCE the Romans shifted major production to their provinces, particularly in Spain.
Amphorae were pottery containers used in the Roman empire to transport liquid agricultural products over long distances either by land or sea. They carried wine, olive and fish sauces. They were made in a variety of forms and sizes. Each Roman province mass-produced amphorae in their own shape and used local materials which varied from province to province.

The spike was a design for marine transport since amphorae could not stand upright unsupported. They can stand in soft sand or be stacked on their sides in layers.

Fragments of amphorae have been found on land and sea. They have been studied since 1899 by archaeologists, particularly to determine the origins, contents, trading and commerce patterns across the Roman Empire. The study of amphorae with stamps of names and symbols has provided information on the production, distribution of food, wine and other beverages.