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The Dolia and the Sea-Borne Commerce of Imperial Rome.

Gianmarco Brenni
Thesis: August 1985
Chair: Bass
Nautical Archaeology Program


Early in the history of underwater archaeological research the amphora was identified as the container most commonly used by the Romans for sea-borne transport of numerous liquid and solid agricultural products. However, at least in the Western Mediterranean region, another vase, of a much larger size than the amphora, is more and more often recovered from the sea bed. This earthenware vessel, ovoid in shape, with a wide mouth and wide rim, without any handle, measures in many cases as must as 180 cm (almost 6 feet) in height. It has been recognized as the dolium, the vase mentioned by many Latin writers and previously thought be classical archaeologists to have been used only on land for the process and storage of food supplies. Now at least seven shipwrecks, dating between the first century B.C. and the third century A.D., have been confirmed as carrying these huge containers; in three cases, thanks to very good site conditions, as many as 14 dolia could be located on a single Roman merchant ship.

In order to fully understand those underwater finds and their relation to the Roman world, it was necessary to extend the research to a more general survey on the dolium, due to the lack of any major publication on it. An extraordinary number of citations found in Latin literature allowed a definition of its dimensions, shape and common uses with a surprising richness of detail, while an extensive collection of land and underwater archaeological excavation reports not only led to a more precise definition of its physical characteristics, cut also to a detailed analysis of the different types of locations in which dolia were used.

Finally, thanks to all this collected information, it was possible to interpret correctly the dolia found in the sea and to integrate them into a more general discussion. This allowed speculation on the existence, at least during the Roman Empire, of a large organization of food supply, most likely concerned with wine, which used the dolium as principal container not only in places of production, like farm-houses (villae rusticae) and in selling points, like taverns (tabernae) and large town warehouses (horrea), but also in transport facilities as on merchant ships (naves vinariae in the case of wine), and eventually also in temporary storage places like harbor warehouses.

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