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Amphora: Evidence of the long-distance trade across the wider circuit of the Red Sea

One of the earliest inventions by early humans was the ability to make Pottery to use them as containers in their daily lives. The art of pottery making is believed to have started during the 7th millennium B.C. In prehistoric times, it is assumed that water was carried in woven baskets lined with river clay.

After the water was poured out of the container the layer of clay dried. The loss of moisture caused the shape to shrink and be separated from the sides of the basket. When the clay, now shaped like a pot, was removed and dried in the sun on hot sand, it retained the basket’s pattern. Early men and women then discovered that they could harden the molded pottery in hot ashes and make sturdy containers to transport and store food. From these would have been extended the pots formed by hand and decorated with crude tools. Due to its abundance and durability, pottery is one of the most common types of items found by archaeologists during excavations, and it has the potential of providing valuable information about the human past.


An amphora (Greek: amphoreus) is a jar with two vertical handles used in antiquity for the storage and transportation of food stuffs such as wine and olive oil. The name comes from the Greek amphiphoreus which means ‘carried on both sides’. The Greeks had adopted the design from the eastern Mediterranean. Used by all the great trading nations, from the Phoenicians to the Romans, the sturdy-walled amphora spread throughout the ancient world and they have become an important survivor in the archaeological record providing clues as to dates of sites, trade relations, and everyday diet.

Archaeological findings revealed the existence of amphora almost in all the major ancient sites in Eritrea such as the ancient port of Adulis, Qohaito and Metera. Those findings provide us with answers about the ancient civilizations and developments in our region. The analysis and interpretation of ceramic remains allow archaeologist to accomplish varied ends, establish dates and chronologies, document interconnections between different areas and suggest the function and status of people and places. Patterns in the production, distribution and exchange of trading materials often help archaeologists to reconstruct wider circuits of long-distance trade among peoples of different civilizations in antiquity. The origin and distribution of materials, thus, becomes a reference to tackle these key aspects of the antiquity of the northern Horn of Africa.

Amphora assemblages represent one of the major evidence of the long-distance trade between the Red Sea coast with the Roman, Byzantine and other empires approximately around the 2nd millennium BCE and 1st millennium CE. Amphora assemblages were produced across much of the Roman Empire from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to France and from the Italian peninsula to the Roman Province of North Africa and Eastern Mediterranean. Amphora assemblages are given different classifications by different archaeologists to represent their production centers across the world as well as their chronologies. The archaeological record from the ancient port city of Adulis in Eritrea shows evidence of Early Roman wine amphora (dating to the late 1st millennium BCE to early 1st millennium CE) as well as the so-called Ayla amphora from the Byzantine period (particularly from the 4th to 7th centuries CE).

The Ayla Amphora or Aqaba Amphora are long and conical “carrot shaped” amphoras, decorated with corrugations, that have been found in the widest range of finds in the Red Sea. These Amphoras have a conical or carrot shape with slight shoulders, button base and ribbed body. The neck is short with vertical and rounded rim in the upper part and in most cases there is an internal ledge below the rim for receiving the lid. The ovoid or elliptical in section handles start from the neck and go to the shoulders. The surface of these amphoras is often covered with a light-colored slip. Subsequent findings, since the mid- 1990s, indicate, however, that the amphoras originate in Byzantine, or even early Islamic Aqaba (Jordan). One astonishing discovery made in 1995 at Black Assarca Island, Eritrea, “The Black Assarca shipwreck”, revealed large assemblages of a variety of artifacts of Near Eastern/ Mediterranean origin, including Ayla or Aqaba Amphoras. Based on the finds at these sites, the Black Assarca ceramics are thought to date from around the 5th or 6th century, with the wreck possibly dating from the early 7th century. The Ayla Amphoras are presumed to have been produced at the ancient port of Ayla (Aqaba), in present day Jordan. These Amphoras assemblages which are presumed to have Eastern Mediterranean origin were also found in Myos Hormos and Berenike in Egypt, Adulis, Assarca and Matara in Eritrea, Axum in Ethiopia as well as Zafar in Yemen. The Ayla Amphoras provide a glimpse of the long-distance trade across the wider circuit of the Red Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean during the Byzantine period.

These varieties of amphora assemblages have expanded our knowledge of the probable origin and distribution patterns of amphora across the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean and also throughout the world. The Early Roman wine amphoras found at the ancient port city of Adulis belong mainly to the Dressel 2-4 typology believed to have been imported from the Italian peninsula and the Roman province of Egypt (principally the ancient ports of Myos Hormos and Berenike). These amphora assemblages have been found at Adulis with other forms of ceramic assemblages from North Africa, including the African sigillata forms allowing us to understand the connections with the wider Red Sea world.

The Dressel 2-4 amphora were particular of the Red Sea Coast of East Africa, Southern Arabia and the Indian sub-continent to transport wine and have been found in these regions in large assemblages. Apart from the apparent connections with the Roman and Byzantine worlds, the Red Sea Coast of Eritrea had trading contacts with the Persian Gulf and the Indian sub-continent as understood from pottery uncovered along the coast.

Amphoras can be considered a crucial commercial and political link between the Red Sea coast, in general, and Eritrea, in particular, with the Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Indian and other empires. Not only does it provide information on the trade relations between various societies but it also takes us further into the dietary habits of these societies.

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