ISO Containers of Antiquity: Standardised Production of Amphorae Began 3000 Years Ago

Transport amphorae from the entire Mediterranean region were studied by OeAI researchers and an international team. They found that production sites had been manufacturing standard shapes and sizes since the 1st millennium BC. Not much different from today, they were responding to increased demand and adjusting the weight and volume of the amphorae to enable a quick and efficient supply of goods.

Underwater image of the amphorae of the shipwreck Illes Formigues II, which sank off Spain (© OeAW-OeAI/H. González Cesteros)

Researchers from the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), together with colleagues from Stanford University and the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, studied amphorae that were used to transport goods throughout the Mediterranean region - from Portugal to the Black Sea and the Levant - in pre-Roman, Roman and Byzantine times.

»The high number of transport amphorae available as archaeological finds offers the opportunity to learn more about the economy in the period from the 1st millennium BC to the 15th century AD,« says Madrid archaeologist Horacio González Cesteros. »We now better understand how bulk agricultural products were packaged and efficiently transported over long distances.« The team presents the results in a recent publication by the Austrian Academy of Sciences Press.

Trade networks as far as India

Amphorae were made in standard shapes, similar to the ISO containers we know today. 

The researchers discovered that the production of transport vessels for liquid and semi-liquid goods was subject to a constant standardisation process. Standard shapes existed, for example, that could be easily carried by one person alone or were equally suitable for transport by land, river or sea.

Comparable to today's freight containers, such as the well-known ISO containers on ships, trains and trucks, the reason for this was above all efficient transport logistics and the optimal coordination of production and sales processes. The results thus also provide insight into the strong networks and high complexity of the economy at that time.

Germania conquered with Spanish olive oil

In several case studies, the international team examined transport amphorae from different production sites from the pre-Roman, Roman and Byzantine period. In each case, the shape, capacity, stamps and inscriptions, material composition and handicraft techniques of the amphorae were determined and compared. The researchers then related these results to regional developments and historical events.

For example, an increase in the production of amphorae for olive oil in southern Spain can be explained by the Roman conquest of Germania. The arrival of large numbers of soldiers at the northern border of the Roman Empire in the Augustan age had a direct influence on olive oil production there, as the supply of oil, wine and other Mediterranean products had to be guaranteed for the troops.

Rising demand in the Roman Empire

Deliveries were made to the entire known world at that time – even as far as India.

Production facilities thus adapted to changing economic conditions. Increased demand led to new amphora shapes being introduced and more varied local shapes no longer being produced. The volume-to-weight ratio was regularly increased to meet the strong demand of a growing Roman Empire for goods from the provinces. Deliveries were made to the entire known world of the time - even as far as India.

»Nevertheless, one cannot speak of 'industrial' production in the modern sense,« explains H. González Cesteros, who researched at the OeAW in Vienna before moving to Madrid. »The standardisation of amphorae was not accompanied by industrialisation, extreme specialisation and mass production. Because unlike today, the products were handmade by the potters, which meant that a certain deviation from the standard was unavoidable.«

Incidentally, a different shape of transport amphora was chosen depending on the type of product. While wine was transported in cylindrical amphorae, amphorae for oil were often bulbous. The average capacity for amphorae was an impressive 20 to 30 litres.

The new discovery of a shipwreck from the 1st century BC in the sea north of Rome, on which hundreds of amphorae were found, shows that there are still new finds to be discovered along the ancient maritime trade routes. The almost intact cargo of amphorae certainly offers archaeologists a lot of new material for further research into the ancient economic system.



Horacio González Cesteros – Justin Leidwanger (Hg.), Regional Economies in Action. Standardization of Transport Amphorae in the Roman and Byzantine Mediterranean, Proceedings of the International Conference at the Austrian Archaeological Institute and the Danish Institute at Athens, 16–18 October 2017, Sonderschriften des Österreichischen Archäologischen Instituts 63 (Vienna 2023)

Zur Person

Horacio González Cesteros was a research associate at the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. He studied History and Archaeology at the University Autónoma de Madrid. He headed the project »Byzantine Amphorae from Ephesos« within the framework of the Lise-Meitner-Programme of the Austrian Science Fund FWF. As of 1.2.2022, he was appointed to a chair of archaeology at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid.



General Contact
Astrid Pircher | Science Communication
Austrian Archaeological Institute at the Austrian Academy of Sciences
T: +43 1 51581-4060

Scientific Contact
Horacio González Cesteros
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
T: +34 633196093