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A Roman Amphora in "Barbaricum" / The History of Romania in One Object

Photo 1: The Roman Amphora discovered on the Prut River, before and after restauration

Many important archaeological discoveries are made serendipitously. This is precisely what happened on the hot and dry summer of 2015 when draught lowered the level of the Prut River (Eastern Romania, on the border with the Republic of Moldova). On a seemingly ordinary day it was luck and the astuteness of a Border Police that led to the discovery of a Roman amphora on the bottom of a meander by the village of Zaboloteni (the commune of Trifești), in Iași county. Although field research was conducted in the area immediately after this finding, no other archaeological materials were identified. We suspect that the amphora originated from a ship sunken in the waters of the Prut River, but only chance may help us find the wreck.

Photo 2 & 3: The place where the Roman Amphora was discovered on the Prut River

Currently, the amphora is part of the collections of Moldavia’s History Museum in Iași. The object has the following dimensions: height - 20.6 inches, maximum diameter – 7.8 inches, the diameter of the mouth – 3.3 inches, capacity – 1.3 gallons. The container has several distinctive features: slightly overturned and thickened lip, cylindrical neck, oval handles, conical body with rounded shoulders, and a narrow, rounded leg. On the body of the object there are grooves that are deeper and more evident on the upper part of the belly. The material from which the amphora was made is a reddish ocher paste that presents traces of silicate rock particles in its the composition.

During the ancient times, the amphorae were used to transport and store certain liquid and semi-liquid goods: wine, oil, honey, fish and fish products such as garum, a kind of sauce very popular in the Roman world. The Zaboloteni amphora was intended for transporting wine and was produced in Sinope on the Southern coast of the Black Sea, in the workshops of Demirci. It was made sometimes in the second half of the 6th Century AD. The amphorae that came out from these workshops are dated through coins issued by emperors Justinian I (527-565) and Justin II and Sophia (565-578).

This type of amphora is extremely rare and few of them have been found even around their production center.

Photo 4: Bronze coins, Emperor Justinian I, 6th century A.D.

Photo 5: Gold coin, Emperor Leon II, 5th century A.D.

Photo 6: Bronze coin, Emperor Phocas, 7th century, A.D.

The discoveries on the coast of Turkey, on the Southern coast of the Black Sea, were quite accidental, most objects being found in shipwrecks. In the Eastern part of the Black Sea such amphorae were discovered in Georgia and Armenia, while in the Northern part of the sea at Chersonessus, in Crimea. On the Western shores of the Black Sea this type of amphora is largely missing, apart from (L)Ibida (Slava Rusă, Tulcea County) in the former Roman Dobrogea. Archaeological research North of the Danube has revealed none of these amphorae, which makes the piece recovered from the Prut riverbed extremely important as it became the Northernmost discovery of this kind.

The amphorae discovered far from their production centers indicate the presence of a long-distance trade between the Roman-Byzantine world and the barbaricum (geographical name used by historical and archaeological experts to refer to the vast area of barbarian-occupied territory that lay, in Roman times, beyond the frontiers or limes of the Roman Empire in North, Central and South Eastern Europe). The transport of goods to the edge of the Eastern Roman Empire was made by sea and rivers. One such route was that of the Prut River, illustrated by the discovery of the Zaboloteni amphora. This archeological finding however should not be regarded as a singular case but, despite its origin in the second half of 6th Century AD, it must be seen as part of a much older reality because the East Carpathian area had been a traditional market for Greek and Roman goods since early Antiquity.

Photo 7: Gold plated bronze brooch discovered at Iași-Ferenț's Cross, 6th-7th Century A.D.

The 6th Century was often an instable period North of the Danube, especially due to Slavic incursions into the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, the region also enjoyed periods of peace. The second half of this century is characterized by a revival of economic life and trade. This is archaeologically attested on the Eastern parts of the Carpathian Mountains by early Byzantine bronze and gold coins which were found in settlements located by the Prut River. A fingers-like brooch, a luxury accessory, was discovered at Iași-Ferenț's Cross. This signals the presence of an elite group within the local society. Iași-Ferenț's Cross is not the only settlement dating from the 5th to the 7th Centuries AD located around the River Prut. Another can be found two miles West from Zaboloteni, at Bivolari where the archeologists found fragments of amphorae similar to the one discovered in the Prut riverbed. One may assume that here or along River Prut there had been a well-established market for products like these.

The existence of a wealthy local elite fueled a steady request for Roman-Byzantine goods. The Roman traders sold luxury goods and mainly bought salt, which was extracted from surface deposits in the Eastern Carpathians and satisfied a great deal of the demand in the Balkan Peninsula. The region’s another important export was precious furs of wild animals such as marten, fox, beaver, or ermine.

The most important aspect of the Zaboloteni amphora is related to the fact that the object was discovered in what was the barbarian world of the 6th century AD, at a considerable distance from the limes, the Empire’s border. Thus, the amphora may constitute an important proof of the "trade and continuity" argument in the Lower Danube area. Future archaeological research on the commercial avenue provided by the Prut Valley will offer new and valuable information in this respect.

Text and video presentation by archaeologist and curator TAMILIA ELENA MARIN of Moldavia's History Museum in Iași. A film by Mihai Neagu.

The second season of THE HISTORY OF ROMANIA IN ONE OBJECT, our online program that evokes decisive epochs in Romania's past starting from objects with powerful symbolic and representative value, is developed in partnership with two of the most important history museums in the country, Moldavia's History Museum in Iași and The National Museum of Transylvanian History in Cluj-Napoca.

#TheHistoryofRomaniainOneObject #ARomanAmphorainBarbaricum



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