Stunning Archaeological Find on an Oil Amphora

A fragment of an oil amphora from the Roman region of Betica, measuring just 6 centimetres wide and 8 long and manufactured about 1,800 years ago, with a unique written text on it has been found.

the fragment with the words engraved on it and a piece of paper where it has been transcribed by the researchers
remnants of a Roman oil amphora Image credit: University of Cordoba

The discovery took place in the municipality of Hornachuelos (Córdoba) by members of OLEASTRO, a joint project between the Universities of Cordoba, Seville and Montpellier. At first nothing would have been extraordinary about the find, as countless pieces of pottery from ancient Rome have been found.

Monte Testaccio in Rome, an artificial mound comprised of Roman pottery, is an infinite source of information about the Roman olive and wine industry. In fact, at first, the research team was not particularly surprised to receive the fragment from Francisco Adame, a resident of the village of Ochavillo, the first person who noticed that little piece of Rome when walking through Arroyo de Tamujar, an area very close to the village of Villalón (Fuente Palmera).

Neither was the research team astonished by the fact that the amphora featured words, as this is quite common too. In fact, the information printed on amphorae (producers, quantities, control…) has allowed archaeologists to understand the history of agricultural trade during the Empire. It was hardly shocking to find a piece of an amphora in an area like the plain of the Guadalquivir River, considered one of the nerve centres of olive oil production and trade throughout the Empire. In the surroundings of Corduba, modern-day Cordoba, a good part of the olive oil consumed by Rome was produced and packaged, as evidenced, for example, by the remnants of amphorae with “Betica” seals preserved on Mount Testaccio.

The fragment of an amphora with text on it seemed, at first, just another piece, devoid of special interest. Everything changed, however, when the epigraph was deciphered, revealing the following words


Through overlaying, the researchers were able to infer that the text corresponds to the seventh and eighth verses of the first book of The Georgics, a poem by Virgil dedicated to agriculture and life in the countryside, written in 29 BC, which say:

glandem m[utauit]
aresta, poq[ulaque]
[miscu]it [uuis]
C[ambió] la bellota aonia por la espiga [fértil] [y mezcl]ó
el ag[ua] [con la uva descubierta]

Virgil was the most popular poet of his time, and still many centuries later. The Aeneid was taught at schools, and its verses routinely written as a pedagogical exercise for many generations. Thus, it is common to find them on the remains of ceramic construction materials, with many authors deducing that these tablets had educational functions (Roman schoolchildren wrote Virgil on their chalkboards) and funerary ones (Virgil’s verses served as an epitaph on many occasions). But, why on an amphora? And why The Georgics, and not The Aeneid? The researchers realized that the tiny fragment of pottery could be a unique piece, and one of extraordinary value, since Virgil’s verses had never been documented on an amphora destined for the oil trade.

The verses on the amphora from Hornachuelos/Fuente Palmera make it a unique piece posing many more questions in need of answers.

Click on this link to access, Las Geórgicas de Virgilio in figlinis: a propósito de un grafito ante cocturam sobre un ánfora olearia bétic, published in Journal of Roman Archaeology

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