BMCR 2019.10.22

Commercial Amphorae in the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria. Études Alexandrines, 44

, Commercial Amphorae in the Graeco-Roman Museum of Alexandria. Études Alexandrines, 44. Alexandria: Centre d’Études Alexandrines, 2018. 618. ISBN 9782490128006. €40.00.

Şenol’s volume focuses on amphorae recovered from excavations in Alexandria, Egypt, that have been undertaken in the city since the 19th century. He presents here, in many cases for the first time, 457 complete or nearly complete amphorae housed in the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria. His aim is to supplement an earlier publication of 228 amphorae from the museum by J.-Y. Empereur in 1998.1 Empereur’s chapter comprises only seven pages of text and focuses primarily on statistical analysis of the finds. It also includes just 18 drawings despite the large sample of vessels that were part of the study. Şenol, on the other hand, presents a more thorough account of these amphorae, including illustrations for each and full catalogue entries. He is also able to build on the significant increases to our understanding of the chronology, origin, and classification of numerous amphora types that have occurred over the past 20 years.

The catalogue includes vessels datable from the fourth century BCE through the seventh century CE. Information about provenience is available for very few of the amphorae (49 of 457 catalogue entries), however. In almost every case, those jars for which that information is preserved are documented as coming from excavations in the numerous necropoleis around Alexandria. Şenol did try to fill in some gaps by going through excavation reports, but few illustrate specific finds. He does use the information from the vessels with known provenience to argue that most of the remaining amphorae likely also come from excavations in the necropoleis, with a small number originating from excavations within Alexandria, and five vessels coming from sites outside of Alexandria. As Şenol comments, one reason for this common association between amphorae and burials in the region may be the practice of enchytrismos, which was the practice of burying infants or children in ceramic vessels. The amphorae with a known provenience come from excavations ranging in date from 1900 to 1947.

Şenol begins with a brief introductory chapter (pp. 15–24) that provides a history of the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, a discussion of the methodology behind choosing and analyzing the sample of vessels included in the study, a concise assessment of regions from which amphorae are attested, and an overview of the findspots in and around Alexandria for the few vessels for which that information is known. Şenol is succinct in presenting this information, since his priority is the catalogue of amphorae that follows. The catalogue comprises the bulk of the volume (pp. 27–538) and is organized by region, with Egyptian amphorae presented first (27–197), followed by jars from North Africa (199–252), Italy (253–336), the Iberian peninsula (337–346), the Aegean (347–436), Pamphylia (437–440), the Levant (441–485), Cilicia (487–521), and the Black Sea (523–526). A small number of unidentified amphorae are included at the end (527–538). Şenol provides a brief discussion of each amphora type, followed by catalogue entries that include information about a vessel’s dimensions, fabric, typology, origin, date, description, parallels, and, when known, its findspot in or around Alexandria, any previous publications, and preserved epigraphy. Every catalogue entry is accompanied by at least one color photograph of the amphora, and many of the entries also have profile drawings. With respect to fabric, however, the fact that these jars are museum objects did create an obstacle for analysis. Şenol was not permitted to remove chips or take samples for petrographic analysis. By necessity, then, his fabric analysis relies on macroscopic observation of the surface or pre-existing breaks using a hand lens.

Overall, the volume is very well produced. One exception is the headers in the first few pages of several of the later chapters, which don’t correspond to the contents. The beginning of the chapter on amphorae from Cilicia, for instance, has a header that reads Levantine Amphorae, while the chapter on Black Sea vessels opens with a header that reads Cilician Amphorae. In the chapter on Pamphylian amphorae, the header reads Aegean Amphorae, which is a continuation from the previous section. This is a minor detail, but one that can cause confusion for a reader trying to flip to a particular point of the book. Also, the 5 cm scale on the profile drawings is illegible without a magnifying glass. A 10 cm scale, which is used for all of the photographs of the complete and nearly complete vessels, would have been more appropriate, especially since the photographs and drawings are presented at the same scale (1:10).

Şenol’s experience with and knowledge of Hellenistic and Roman amphorae is clear throughout the volume. He provides detailed discussions about numerous types from different regions that will serve as an important resource for scholars interested in reconstructing distribution networks through analysis of amphora evidence. The section on Egyptian amphorae is important for its clear presentation of known Hellenistic and Roman types, along with variants that appear over time, many of which will be unfamiliar to scholars working in other parts of the Mediterranean. This should facilitate the identification of many of these vessels at sites outside of Egypt. The book is also well organized and well-illustrated.

There are a couple of places where Şenol’s discussion of the data and vessel types could be clearer. In the introductory section where he discusses the sample of vessels selected for inclusion, the numbers are confusing. Şenol notes that his study of material from terrestrial and underwater excavations at Alexandria identified 588 complete amphorae. The very next sentence states that this book focuses on 457 complete or nearly complete amphorae housed in the Graeco-Museum because all of the other examples are incomplete. One possibility is that the remaining 131 complete vessels are housed in other collections, but the disparity between those two numbers, which both claim to represent complete or nearly complete amphorae, needs to be addressed. There are also some amphorae, each with only a single catalogued example, for which there is no background discussion in the introductory portions of their respective chapters. This is the case for a supposed new type of Cretan amphora (p. 413), a Qasrawet 2530 jar from Cilicia (p. 505), and a new type of Cilician amphorae (p. 506). These are exceptions to Şenol’s standard practice of providing introductory remarks about the types in the catalogue, but it would be informative to have some further discussion for these amphorae, particularly concerning the decision to associate these newly identified types with particular regions.

Synthetic discussion that considers the economic implications of the amphorae included in the catalogue is scattered throughout the volume. This can be seen, for example, in the sections dedicated to Tripolitanian amphorae (pp. 199–200) and Dressel 2-4 vessels from Italy (pp. 321–322). For scholars interested in those types, having that information, along with the associated bibliography, with the catalogue entries will be beneficial. Yet, Şenol clearly has a knowledge of amphorae found at Alexandria that few other scholars can match. It would be interesting to see his assessment of this data overall and its potential to augment our understanding of Alexandria’s role in Mediterranean exchange patterns during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. His focus in this volume is more on presentation of data and one hopes that he will engage in a more synthetic study in the future.

This book is an invaluable contribution to pottery publications from coastal sites in the Mediterranean. The presentation of a large sample of amphorae from Alexandria will shed new light on the city’s role in exchange networks and provide an important resource for the further identification of many of these types at other sites inside and outside of Egypt. Şenol’s publication of this material, which includes such a large sample of amphorae without provenience information, is also commendable since it is easy to avoid finds that have incomplete records. Despite that limitation, these amphorae can contribute to an understanding of economic patterns and provide additional comparanda for scholars to consider. This volume is a testament to the benefits that engaging with this type of material can provide and will serve as necessary reading for pottery specialists and for anyone interested in the economy of the Hellenistic and Roman Mediterranean.


1. Empereur, J.-Y., “Les amphores completes du Musée d’Alexandrie: importations et productions locales,” in J.-Y. Empereur (ed.), Commerce et artisanat dans l’Alexandrie hellénistique et Romaine, 393–399. BCH Supplement, 33. Athens: École française d’Athènes, 1998.