What is it?
This small sherd of pottery, measuring 6cm wide and 8cm long, comes from the lower part of a Roman amphora once used to hold olive oil. The fragment bears part of an inscription carved into the clay during the amphora’s production, c.1,800 years ago. The words have now been identified as verses from the second major work of the popular Roman poet Virgil, The Georgics, a poem on an agricultural theme. The section in question reads Chaoniam pingui glandem mutavit arista/ poculaque inventis Acheloia miscuit uvis (‘[The earth] changed the Chaonian acorn for the plump ear of wheat/And mixed the waters of Achelous with the newfound grape’).
Where was it found, and when?
The amphora fragment was found in 2016 in Hornachuelos, Córdoba, Spain, during an archaeological survey by the OLEASTRO project. It was not immediately possible to decipher the inscription, but researchers suspected that it might be something special. Amphorae and other Roman vessels were often adorned with practical information related to producers, taxes, and quality control, but these inscriptions are hardly ever more than a line or two long. This piece had at least four or five lines of writing. Experts spent several years analysing the text – hindered by a few spelling mistakes made by the engraver – and were eventually able to identify it as the seventh and eighth verses from the first book of Virgil’s Georgics.
Why does it matter?
Passages by Virgil are found written on pottery fragments fairly frequently, usually as part of an epitaph or on sherds used by schoolchildren for writing exercises. However, these verses are nearly always from Virgil’s most famous work, the epic Aeneid. The discovery of a vessel inscribed with a passage from The Georgics is unusual. Perhaps given the rural area where the amphora was produced, the agricultural theme of The Georgics seemed most fitting.
The type of vessel on which the inscription was found is noteworthy: this is believed to be the first known example of a literary engraving on an amphora. The researchers suggest that the engraving was not intended to be seen, as it was written in the cursive script of everyday use, on the lower part of the amphora where it would not have been visible to merchants or consumers. The words were probably engraved there by someone working in the amphora factory, perhaps a skilled worker noting it down from memory, or a child practising their writing. The engraver made a few mistakes, but clearly whoever carved this inscription into the unfinished amphora was more educated than such rural workers are commonly thought to have been. This rare discovery also represents an important resource for research into epigraphy and Colloquial Latin.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
The research has been published in the Journal of Roman Archaeology (https://doi.org/10.1017/S1047759423000156). The object is currently in the collections of the Archaeological Museum of Córdoba, and there are plans to place it on display in the near future.
Find out more about Roman olive oil production in Hispania here: https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.69.
Text: Amy Brunskill / Photo: I González Tobar