BMCR 2021.03.17

Henry Hunter Calvert’s collection of amphora stamps and that of Sidney Smith Saunders

, Henry Hunter Calvert's collection of amphora stamps and that of Sidney Smith Saunders. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2020. Pp. 118. ISBN 9781789696431 $35.00.

Henry Hunter Calvert was a botanist, conchologist and collector who died at Çanakkale in 1882, a few months after escaping from rioting in Alexandria where he had been British vice-consul (1856-1882). Between 1859 and 1864 the entomologist and prolific publisher Sidney Smith Saunders was also a fellow in the consul in Alexandria. Some of the artefacts (clay figurines, shabtis, mummy labels) that Calvert had in his collection are in the British Museum.[1] Calvert also owned a remarkable amphora stamp collection which was destroyed in the mayhem of June 1882 (the “Urabi revolution”) when the British consulate at Alexandria was burnt down after the devastation from the bombing of Alexandria by the British fleet.

However, Calvert had already sent a manuscript of a catalogue of his collection of Greek amphora stamps to the British Museum, presumably to Charles Newton, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities, with whom he and his brother Frank had frequent correspondence. Unfortunately, we do not know the exact provenance of the collection, as there is no relevant information in Calvert’s correspondence with the British Museum. It seems quite possible that most of the stamped handles came from Alexandria. Alan Johnston has now published the stamps recorded in the manuscript, which was filed away and forgotten in the Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities. This is an unusual publication of amphora stamps, as the objects themselves were not saved.

This short book (118 p.) is essentially a catalogue of the original drawings accompanied by readings, brief descriptions, and in most cases a general date. The original list compiled by Calvert and Saunders is lacking detailed descriptions, and Johnston occasionally added comments regarding Calvert’s errors or probable errors.

In a commendable effort, Johnston has categorized the careful drawings of 692 stamps of Calvert, 255 of Saunders and 17 owned by Dr. A.A. Arcadius by their region of origin. The majority are Rhodian, as is true of other collections from Alexandria.[2] There follow stamps from Cnidus area and the island of Kos. In smaller numbers are represented the products of Chios, Thasos, Akanthos, Pamphylia, Egypt, Iberian Peninsula, as well as the Italian stamps (especially from the region of Brindisi). The list also includes 72 unclassifiable stamps of uncertain provenance.[3] Each category is accompanied by a basic bibliography (which could have been richer). As the author points out there is a major issue with this material. “One cannot rely closely on Calvert’s drawings, since some of them certainly contain errors of transcription and others may well do.”[4] At the end there is a short chapter with the comments where more emphasis is given to the three major categories of Koan, Cnidian and Rhodian amphorae. The publication is accompanied by a useful index with the names and symbols attested, which should have used the Greek alphabet and finally five photographs of the collectors’ original manuscripts.

Although admittedly the archaeological value of these objects is limited, the historical value is important and Johnston is owed thanks for publishing these manuscripts. These amphora stamps are now added to the rich corpus of about 100,000 stamps from Alexandria. Perhaps other such “treasures” will be registered in the basements of museums around the world.


[1] The British Museum: Henry Hunter Calvert.

[2] The so-called Benaki Collection is, in fact, the largest stamped amphora handle collection in the world having nearly 65,000 pieces of varied origin. Virginia Grace classified them initially, and Jean-Yves Empereur continued the project of classification and photographed them all, with stamps from other sites in and around the city (see Anses d’amphores timbrées). See also N. Badoud, Les temps de Rhodes; une chronologie des inscriptions de la cité fondée sur l’études de ses institutions, Munich 2015.

[3] E.g. no. 860, 861, 862 could be Corcyrian or Lefkadian, see C. Koehler, Corinthian A and B transport amphoras, (Ph.D. diss. Princeton University 1978), p. 213–326; For a summary table cf. T.-M. Panagou, Η σφράγιση των αρχαίωνελληνικών εμπορικών αμφορέων. Κέντρα παραγωγής και συνθετική αξιολόγηση (Ph.D. diss. National and Kapodistrian University, Athens 2010), p. 122–124. K. Filis – V. Staikou, “The transport amphoras from the port facilities of ancient Leukas. Local / regional and extra-regional exchange networks,” in: 4th IARPotHP Conference Manufactures and Markets: The Contribution of Hellenistic Pottery to Economies Large and Small, November 2019, 11-14 Athens – Greece(forthcoming).

[4] Virginia Grace in 1950 established the now accepted process of illustrating the stamp with a photograph and by taking a rubbing: a process that today seems to be almost natural, see J.-Y. Empereur, “Documentation and storage of stamped amphora handles. The challenge of the mass collection,” in Protection and Enhancement of Cultural Heritage. The Case of Transport Amphorae; Ch. Fantaoutsaki (ed.), Protection and Enhancement of Cultural Heritage: The Case of Transport Amphorae: Proceedings of the Scientific Conference, Rhodes, 30 September 2017 (Rhodes), 141-152, mainly p. 143, n. 10.