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Most liquid containers, such as barrels, are flat in the bottom and thus easy to store and pile up.

However, some ancient amphoras were pointwise in the bottom arguably making them less easy to store. Why was that so?

(example taken from wikipedia) Amphoras

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    Something that tall and narrow wouldn't be that stable even if it had a flat bottom.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 21, 2014 at 21:25
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    Depends on how you store it. If in racks, or in a base full of sand, then the point isn't a problem and might be an advantage.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 21, 2014 at 21:37
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    Take a look at the picture you attached - it demonstrates the answer quite nicely. The bottoms are tapered so that the wooden frame secures the bottom while the rop secures the top. Mar 21, 2014 at 22:44
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    Hmm! Why do some people look like upside-down pointy-bottomed amphora? hotoffpress.files.wordpress.com/2010/12/… Mar 22, 2014 at 2:26
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    @JorgeLeitao Not true. Test tubes are not flat on the bottom. Neither are many fuel tanks.
    – C Monsour
    Sep 29, 2019 at 17:35

6 Answers 6

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From the same wiki article:

The amphora complements the large storage container, the pithos, which makes available capacities between one-half and two and one-half tons. In contrast, the amphora holds under a half-ton, typically less than 100 pounds. The bodies of the two types have similar shapes. Where the pithos may have multiple small loops or lugs for fastening a rope harness, the amphora has two expansive handles joining the shoulder of the body and a long neck. The necks of pithoi are wide for scooping or bucket access. The necks of amphorae are narrow for pouring by a person holding it by the bottom and a handle. Some variants exist. The handles might not be present. The size may require two or three handlers to lift. For the most part, however, an amphora was tableware, or sat close to the table, was intended to be seen, and was finely decorated as such by master painters.

Stoppers of perishable materials, which have rarely survived, were used to seal the contents. Two principal types of amphorae existed: the neck amphora, in which the neck and body meet at a sharp angle; and the one-piece amphora, in which the neck and body form a continuous curve. Neck amphorae were commonly used in the early history of ancient Greece, but were gradually replaced by the one-piece type from around the 7th century BC onward.

Most were produced with a pointed base to allow upright storage by embedding in soft ground, such as sand. The base facilitated transport by ship, where the amphorae were packed upright or on their sides in as many as five staggered layers.[1] If upright, the bases probably were held by some sort of rack, and ropes passed through their handles to prevent shifting or toppling during rough seas. Heather and reeds might be used as packing around the vases. Racks could be used in kitchens and shops. The base also concentrated deposits from liquids with suspended solid particles, such as olive oil and wines.

I'd say by the ancient people's idea the pointed base was a feature, not a bug. The smallish size made it easier to handle than a barrel, and it would always be risky to stack fragile clay vessels in large piles without support in any shape. Ships then were smaller and had less cargo volume so huge stacks of barrel-like containers wouldn't fit.

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  • I was not able to find how the reference [1] supports the sentence in bold (I don't have full access to the text though) Nevertheless, it is a plausible reason. Mar 21, 2014 at 22:22
  • It is not a particularly contentious conclusion - I have heard it for decades. Now I don't know if anyone knows if the shape came first and they made their storage systems to match, or they decided on how to store them and adapted the shape to that. All we see is that the vessels looked like that and it was pretty much a universal standard.
    – Oldcat
    Mar 21, 2014 at 22:25
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    "For the most part, however, an amphora was tableware, or sat close to the table, was intended to be seen, and was finely decorated as such by master painters." It's important so see that the article talks about two completely different type of amphora. One was a mass-produced throw-away packaging for olive oil/wine/... and sized to maximise storage while still allowing a single person (slave) to carry it. The other is decorative tableware.
    – fgysin
    May 3, 2021 at 11:00
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    I've heard this before,, also, and it seems like speculation: "They're all shaped that way, so there must be a reason. What could it be? I know! They stick the pointy end in mud!" What is the evidence this is actually true?
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 14 at 13:16
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    @MarkOlson agreed, that doesn't even seem like a good reason. How long did you average amphora spend in a sandy environment? Hardly ever, I would bet.
    – DrMcCleod
    Mar 15 at 8:40
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There might be a further explanation, in that leaving a vessel on its side would keep the cork or bung moist. Compare with champagne storage, where the bottles are always laid down to prevent the cork shrinking by drying out.

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    Can you develop this idea a little more? A source or two would be nice... Sep 28, 2019 at 10:58
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    Not just Champagne storage - but storage of all cork-sealed liquids including all types of wine so sealed. Cork is only air-proof when moisture has swelled the cork against the container wall to form a tight seal. Sep 28, 2019 at 17:36
  • i think this is a good and relevant answer, notwithstanding that it needs a reference Oct 1, 2019 at 7:56
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    I have not seen this supported by the sources, as far as I can remember amphorae are always shown standing.
    – fgysin
    May 3, 2021 at 11:04
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    However the use of cork as a stopper dates only from the 18th Century: "Cork stoppers were introduced at the beginning of the seventeenth century by the Benedictine monk Dom Pérignon, who used them to seal the bottles of his famous champagne." Wikipedia Dec 5, 2021 at 22:11
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It is possible that amphora were so shaped to prevent them rolling any distance - the shape would cause them to roll in a tight circle and this would make them safer when transported by sea as they would not upset the weight distribution on the small and fragile vessels of the time. The shape also prevents liquids to surge when tilted for pouring.

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    The evidence we have on storage doesn't seem to support this theory. Do you have something more concrete? Mar 14 at 6:43
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Have you ever lifted an anphorae? They are big. They weight quite a lot already when empty. They were not like our plastic bottles. Here are some observations from colleagues that have studied amphorae for nearly their entire life, in Monte Testaccio, a dump from ancient Rome:

  1. Amphorae were made for long distance exchanges or storage, so no reason to make them confortable to handle in a daily basis.

  2. Observation in common with Ian Bruce which is 100% correct, yet downvoted below:

the shape is engineered to allow a low strength pottery to be able to withstand a considerable weight of contents. That point might function like an inverted arch.

This is because..

  1. For ceramic containers the bottom might just fell-off if deformities are present if the container manufacturing or cooking process went wrong.

  2. Wide vessel bottoms, in ceramic containers, amount to quite a lot of the total weight of the vessel.

  3. The ultimate answer for this question is because the cavitation effect. This is a bubbling effect created when liquid suddenly moves inside a container, creating a brief but strong vacuum that impacts the container botom and does break glass bottles quite easily. Also, similar ceramic containers like amphorae.

Because of this efect, any large bottom vessel will have extra difficulties to withstand a shake. The narrow bottom changes the fluid dynamics and does not allow for the cavitation effect. For further explanation, ask Physics Stack Exchange.

You can see this cavitation effect in many slow motion youtube videos. It does break a beear bottle with just a finger tap, if you know how to tap it.

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    Interesting notion. Have you any evidence?
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 14 at 13:18
  • Monte Testaccio, patterns in broken Amphorae
    – James
    Mar 14 at 14:20
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    That's a pair of noun phrases, not evidence. Please expand in your answer. Why isn't this a problem for us? Why wasn't it a problem for the medievals?
    – Mark Olson
    Mar 14 at 15:20
  • It would be a problem for us (if we still used amphorae), as well as the medievals, who did use wood barrels pretty soon (much lighter container, it was the demise for the amphorae). Expanded info above.
    – James
    Mar 14 at 16:25
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    Please note the answer you attribute to Lars Borsteen was merely edited by him for spelling. I do not believe you will find any answer by @Lars Borsteen which makes speculative arguments with no academic citations to support them.
    – justCal
    Mar 14 at 17:18
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The point has always baffled me. The idea that it developed so that they could be stored upright in soft sand is often quoted--but seems pretty sketchy. I could speculate that the shape is engineered to allow a low strength pottery to be able to withstand a considerable weight of contents. That point might function like an inverted arch.

Round bottomed pots make sense for a combination of strength (like a dome) and ability to sit comfortably on an earthen floor or in a bed of coals. The pointy bottoms would not work well in that context, as a custom shaped hole would have to be dug. The shape would withstand much heavier loading than a round bottom, however.

Another possibility, is that it is a shape that would be stronger in its weaker, pre-fired stage, which might be important for large heavy, thick walled vessels? Would the shape also facilitate the flow of hot air during firing? I'm sure a lot of research has been done on this--I would love to see it!

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    The idea that it developed so that they could be stored upright in soft sand is often quoted--but seems pretty sketchy. Why does it seem 'sketchy'? Do you have an academic source on this? Dec 5, 2021 at 6:44
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For ergonomic pouring. You could hold the amphora with one hand by one of the handles at its neck, while using another hand to steady and lift the base as you tip and pour it out. The stubby point on the bottom of the amphora makes for a nice handgrip.

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    Hmm, any primary or academic sources to support this? While it may make a nice handgrip, a flat base is also fine for grip. May 3, 2021 at 5:47

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