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date: 08 December 2022

amphorae and amphora stamps, Greekfree

amphorae and amphora stamps, Greekfree

  • Alan Johnston
  •  and Virginia Randolph Grace


  • Greek Material Culture: Bronze Age
  • Greek Material Culture

The amphora is one of the most versatile and long-lived pot shapes. A two-handled jar (amphi-phoreus, ‘carried on both sides’), it can vary enormously in size, detail of shape, and manner of decoration. Broad-mouthed jars, plain or decorated, were generally known as kadoi or stamnoi in antiquity. Plain or part-decorated jars, more often termed amphoreus, were used widely for storage and transport; we see them often in vase scenes, and literary and epigraphic texts fill out the picture. The average capacity of Classical and Hellenistic jars is 20–25 lt. (4½–5½ gal.); earlier types are regularly larger (up to 95 lt. (21 gal.)), betraying their derivation from the static storage pithos. Early transport amphorae (late 8th cent., esp. Attic and Corinthian) probably contained oil; later, wine becomes the major commodity; jars supplement, then supplant skins. Other commodities which we know to have been transported in amphorae include pitch and dried fish. Stoppers were of various material, though few survive; clay is best attested, both as basic material and sealer, though resin was also used for the latter purpose.

From the Archaic period we have significant series, often with clear distinguishing characteristics of shape or decoration, from Corinth (two types), Chios, Samos, Lesbos, Miletus, Cyprus. The Attic oil jar disappears from the export market c.575 bce, but many of these centres continue production into the Classical and Hellenistic periods (esp. Chios and Samos). By then we find new exporters, Thasos, Mende, Cnidus, Rhodes, and several Black Sea colonies, and their amphorae predominate from the 4th to the 1st cent. Distinct varieties are also found in south Italy. It should be stressed that there are many other less frequent types, whether localized by modern scholarship or not, some clearly imitations of major series, giving an intricate pattern of distribution. Shapes tend to the slim and elongated, more easy to store on ship, while the original foot turns into a stem to facilitate handling; however, the trend is neither rapid nor uniform.


Stamps were impressed on plain pottery amphorae, usually on their handles, before firing in the kiln, though not all amphorae were stamped. The stamps were evidently control stamps, which seem to have endorsed the jars as of standard capacity or as part of a production quota, varying according to its geographical class and particular size. Amphorae produced by different local centres are distinguishable by special features of shape, and the stamped ones most specifically by their stamps.

Typical Greek amphora stamps contain a name in the genitive, most usually that of the endorsing potter or pottery manufacturer; plus a name, sometimes with a title, introduced by the preposition epi, presumably a dating authority (in the most numerous class of stamps, the name of the month made the date more precise); plus sometimes an ethnic adjective (‘Thasian’, ‘Cnidian’, etc.); and/or an identifying device, which may be the arms of the issuing state, as the ‘rose’ characteristic of the coins of Rhodes is common also in stamps on Rhodian amphorae. Some amphorae were stamped with a single name or device only; a few on the other hand named in their stamps other magistrates in addition to the presumed dating authority.

Stamped containers were issued by a limited number of Greek states, which were important as producers of wine (a few, e.g. Samos, of olive oil), or as large-scale commercial handlers. For instance, the elaborately stamped early Thasian amphorae were made at a time of close state-control of the production and sale of the famous wine of Thasos, both wine and control being well attested in ancient literature and in epigraphical texts of the late 5th and early 4th cents. bce. In contrast, Rhodian wine is very little mentioned by the ancients; and yet Rhodian amphora stamps are by far the most numerous class known to modern study. Presumably the standard Rhodian container facilitated the collection of port taxes which were the main source of revenue of the state of Rhodes. The wine contained was of ordinary grade consumed in bulk, for instance by the troops of Hellenistic times. Perhaps not much of it was made in Rhodes.

Although the original purpose of dating amphorae was no doubt to fix more closely the responsibility for their proper production, one effect must have been to date the contents, identifying the age or special vintage of the finer kinds of wine, and the freshness of the cheaper which was not worth drinking after a year. An incidental benefit is that to modern archaeological studies: as the chronology of these objects becomes better established, their very commonly found fragments quite often provide the best evidence available for dating an excavated deposit of the 4th to the 1st cent. bce.

Work by Virginia Grace published in the 1970s initiated a very considerable amount of study of amphorae and stamps; chronological and administrative concerns have been discussed in detail, with emphasis on such matters as dies for stamps, comparative archaeological strata, and repetition of common names in most series.

In particular, work on the 3rd cent. stamps of Rhodes has been substantially revised by Grace and Finkielsztejn among others. The potential interpretative dangers of studying stamps apart from unstamped amphorae has been stressed by Lawall.


  • Lexicon Vasorum Graecorum, 1 (1992), entry under ‘amphorae’. No single work illustrates the full range of types.
  • Introductory: Excavations of the Athenian Agora, Picture Book No. 6: Amphoras and the Ancient Wine Trade, rev. edn. (1979).
  • New chronology: V. R. Grace, MDAI(A) 1974, 193–200,
  • and Hesperia: Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens 1985, 1–54.
  • G. Finkielsztejn, Chronologie détaillée et révisée des éponymes amphoriques rhodiens, de 270 à 108 av. J.-C. environ: premier bilan (2001).
  • M. Lawall, ‘Amphoras and Hellenistic economies’ in Z. Archibald and others (eds.), Making, Moving, Managing (2005).
Factory sites
  • See notably Y. Garlan, Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique Suppl. 5 (1979), 213–68: thorough investigation and prompt publication of a large ancient factory of amphorae in Thasos, with a surprising and convincing interpretation of the finds.
  • New publications in this field are now being noticed regularly in a ‘Bulletin Archéologique' in Rev. Ét. Grec., recently 2007, 161–264. These contain not only bibliography, but also summaries and comment, in French—particularly valuable to those who do not know Russian. We owe the French versions of Russian articles to Jacqueline Garlan.