Monte Testaccio, 49 metres high AMSL (above mean sea level) and also known as “Monte dei Cocci”, is so called because it is made of testae (the latin word for fragments of broken amphoras). In fact, it is the result of a systematic and prolonged accumulation of olive oil amphoras. The amphoras were discharged in the nearby river port, built at the end of the 2nd century, and, after being emptied, were systematically broken and splintered and then carried to an area near the storehouses (horrea) used as a dump. Unlike the amphoras used for agricultural products, oil amphoras, mainly coming from Betica (nowadays Andalusia), could not be reused because of the rapid alteration of oil rests. The problem of disposing of the amphoras rapidly and inexpensively, yet according to hygiene standards, was solved by means of a dump where, since the Augustan age, the splinters of these voluminous “non-returnable” containers were stacked up without any waste of space, just adding lime. The lime, used to avoid the problems caused by the oil decomposition, was an excellent bonding agent for the splinters.

This fact confirms that curatores, that is officials ruling the unloading operations, supervised the formation of the mount, ensuring its maintenance and the highest possible efficiency.
Useful pieces of information about the accumulations’
modalities and chronology, traditionally identified with a 270-year period (from Augustus to Gallienus), are provided by the inscriptions found on the fragmentary amphoras. In fact, many of the amphoras still bear the stamp on one of the handles, and some are labelled with notes drawn by nib or brush with black or minium ink(tituli picti). These inscriptions, written on different parts of the amphoras, provide much information, like the weight of the empty amphora and its content, the names of the “mercatores”, of the shipping place, and of the producer. For these reasons Monte Testaccio can be considered an open-air archive, extremely valuable for investigating commerce in ancient Rome.


(A. M. Ramieri)