Visit Monte Testaccio, the Ancient Roman Hill Made of 50 Million Crushed Olive Oil Jugs

Image by pat­ri­moni gen­cat, via Flickr Com­mons

It may be one of the more curi­ous man­made garbage piles on our plan­et. Locat­ed in Rome, and dat­ing back to 140 A.D., Monte Tes­tac­cio ris­es 150 feet high. It cov­ers some 220,000 square feet. And it’s made almost entire­ly of 53 mil­lion shat­tered amphorae–that is, Roman jugs used to trans­port olive oil dur­ing ancient times. How did the rem­nants of so many amphorae end up here? The web site Olive Oil Times offers this expla­na­tion:

First­ly, the site of the mound on the east bank of the Tiber is locat­ed near the Hor­rea Gal­bae – a huge com­plex of state con­trolled ware­hous­es for the pub­lic grain sup­ply as well as wine, food and build­ing mate­ri­als. As ships came from abroad bear­ing the olive oil sup­plies, the trans­port amphorae were decant­ed into small­er con­tain­ers and the used ves­sels dis­card­ed near­by.

There’s a rea­son for this: Due to the clay uti­lized to make the amphorae not being lined with a glaze, after trans­porta­tion of olive oil, the amphorae could not be re-used because the oil cre­at­ed a ran­cid odour with­in the fab­ric of the clay.

You might con­sid­er this Roman garbage dump an his­tor­i­cal odd­i­ty. But as they say, one man’s trash is anoth­er man’s trea­sure. And accord­ing to Archae­ol­o­gy (a web­site of the Archae­o­log­i­cal Insti­tute of Amer­i­ca) Monte Tes­tac­cio promis­es to reveal much about the inner-work­ings of the Roman econ­o­my. They write:

As the mod­ern glob­al econ­o­my depends on light sweet crude, so too the ancient Romans depend­ed on oil—olive oil. And for more than 250 years, from at least the first cen­tu­ry A.D., an enor­mous num­ber of amphoras filled with olive oil came by ship from the Roman provinces into the city itself, where they were unloaded, emp­tied, and then tak­en to Monte Tes­tac­cio and thrown away. In the absence of writ­ten records or lit­er­a­ture on the sub­ject, study­ing these amphoras is the best way to answer some of the most vex­ing ques­tions con­cern­ing the Roman economy—How did it oper­ate? How much con­trol did the emper­or exert over it? Which sec­tors were sup­port­ed by the state and which oper­at­ed in a free mar­ket envi­ron­ment or in the pri­vate sec­tor?

For his­to­ri­ans, these are impor­tant ques­tions, and they’re pre­cise­ly the ques­tions being asked by Uni­ver­si­ty of Barcelona pro­fes­sor, José Reme­sa, who notes, “There’s no oth­er place where you can study eco­nom­ic his­to­ry, food pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion, and how the state con­trolled the trans­port of a prod­uct.”

Above get a dis­tant view of Monte Tes­tac­cio. Below get a close up view of the amphorae shards them­selves.

Image by Alex, via Flickr Com­mons

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Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Old­est Unopened Bot­tle of Wine in the World (Cir­ca 350 AD)

How to Bake Ancient Roman Bread Dat­ing Back to 79 AD: A Video Primer

How Did the Romans Make Con­crete That Lasts Longer Than Mod­ern Con­crete? The Mys­tery Final­ly Solved

Rome Reborn: Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 C.E.

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