4th c. B.C. Greek amphora pits found in Marseille

A preventative archaeology excavation in Marseille has unearthed three pits of Greek amphorae dating to the 4th century B.C. Archaeologists have been excavating the site of an office building renovation in a neighborhood of the city that was extensively reconstructed in the second half of the 19th century. A 16th century convent was on the site before then. The Greek-era pit had been absorbed into this much later construction.

The oldest city is what is now France, Marseille was founded as Massalia by colonists from the Ioanian Greek city of Phocaea in around 600 B.C. It was an emporion (trading post) for the burgeoning Ioanian Greek trade networks in the Western Mediterranean. Local production of amphorae and ceramics began virtually immediately to facilitate the transportation, consumption and storage of imported goods like wine and cereals. By the 4th century B.C., Massalia was a power center on the coast of southern Gaul, founding cities from The Pillars of Hercules to Corsica.

The recent excavation attests to Massalia’s active pottery industry in what was then the periphery of the city. The archaeological team discovered three pits with vertical walls. The first pit was filled with rubble rich in charcoal, clay nodules, kiln fragments and overfired ceramics. This was clearly a reject pit. Pieces from the potters’ workshop, likely located nearby, that failed to meet expectations were tossed into the first pit. The second pit is partially filled with complete Massalian amphorae that were arranged in layers. The third pit was damaged in modern construction and contains ceramic fragments that have yet to be dated.

The excavation made it possible to collect a large quantity of ceramic furniture, crockery and amphorae, dating homogeneously from the second half of the 4th century B.C. and illustrating the diversity of Massalian productions. The shapes identified correspond mainly to locally made dishes, cups or jugs. Mortars and amphorae also contain a paste rich in mica fragments, typical of Marseille potters’ workshops. Some of these are stamped with Greek letters that increase the body of [known Greek maker’s marks in] the south of France. A few shards of untreated Gallic ceramic as well as Attic imports complete the lot. Fragments of Etruscan, Phoenician-Punic and Iberian amphorae, correspond to older vases, are probably found in a residual position.


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Comment by Cacophonix
2021-11-15 01:49:32

According to Caesar, the Gauls –or some of them– were indeed using Greek letters: “Neque fas esse existimant ea litteris mandare, cum in reliquis fere rebus, publicis privatisque rationibus, Graecis utantur litteris.”

In the oppidum of Bibracte, the layers of broken wine amphorae, for example, were several meters(!)

The Aedui were located at a commercial crossroads between the Celtic world and Rome. They allowed the diffusion of Roman products through Gaul as early as the 2nd century BCE, allowing their allies to benefit from their commerce with Rome and definitely with Greek colonies such as Massilia. These exchanges are confirmed by the large quantities of amphoras and ceramics from Italy found in waste tanks and in the paving of houses. In addition, the Aedui installed a system of customs that taxed products passing through their territory to increase their wealth, as attested in the texts of Julius Caesar: “It was typical of Dumnorix: the man was audacious, his generosity made him popular, and he wanted political change. For years, he has had the control of the customs and all the other taxes of the Aedui, because when he bid, no one dared bid against him.”

Dumnorix, their leader, had a brother –that the Romans referred to by the name of Diviciacus– and that guy had in 61BC visited Rome on a diplomatic mission as their ‘Vergobret’, basically helping in kicking off the Gallic War.

It would be interesting to know, however, if he spoke Greek, Latin or possibly both.

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January 2022


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