Trowelblazing and amphora handle

I’m very pleased to have a guest post on the Trowelblazers blog. It’s a brilliant site, designed to ‘reset imaginations’ by celebrating women’s contributions to archaeology, palaeontology and geology (you can read their manifesto here). I’m delighted to have made a small contribution to this agenda through my micro-blog on Virginia Grace, who was indomitable in investigating and cataloguing stamped amphora handles, primarily at the Athens Agora, but also working on collections across the world. What really impresses me is that she saw the potential in the subject and grew it from small beginnings to a valuable source of evidence in all kinds of contexts, including the Antikythera shipwreck. For more information, I recommend the excellent biography by Sara Immerwahr.

I came across Virginia Grace while researching an amphora handle in the Leeds City Museum Cypriot collection.

Amphora handle © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Amphora handle
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

Amphora handles tend to be interesting not so much for the objects themselves (it’s not the most visually exciting ceramic I’ve ever come across), but for what they can tell us about commerce and trade routes in the ancient world. Many amphora handles have impressed stamps from which their place and date of manufacture can be deduced. Since they were impressed before firing, they often survive very well and are still legible.

The stamp on the Leeds handle can be seen reasonably well in the photo below.

Amphora handle stamp © Leeds Museums and Galleries

Amphora handle stamp
© Leeds Museums and Galleries

It reads (in Greek):


which can be expanded to Ἐπὶ Κλεάρχου Πανάμου. ‘Panamou’ refers to the month of Panamos in the Rhodian calendar, while Klearchos is the eponymous magistrate under whose jurisdiction the amphora will have been manufactured. His dates are c.205-200 BC, so we can deduce that this amphora was made in Rhodes at some point during this period.

When it comes to its Cypriot provenance, things get a bit more complicated. It’s supposed to have been found in Paphos, though this depends on its identification as one of two amphora handles from Cyprus donated to the Museum of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society by the British Museum in 1902. A.S. Murray, Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the BM, produced a detailed handwritten list of the donation, which identifies the amphora handles:

Extract from note by A.S. Murray © British Museum

Extract from note by A.S. Murray
© British Museum

According to this list, the stamp should read either ΦΙΛΑΙΝΙΟΥ or ΕΠΙ ΜΥΤΙΩΝΟΣ (give or take a few missing letters), which evidently it doesn’t. It’s not clear how this came about; whether a different amphora handle was dispatched from the BM, or whether it became misattributed as a result of the WWII bombing of the Leeds City Museum, which does appear to have introduced a fair amount of confusion into the records. This obviously limits the information the handle can give us; but it’s good to know where and when it came from, if not the full story of its journey to Leeds.


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