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Storing Goods, Keeping Time

Caroline Cheung

Princeton University

Roman farmers were constantly aware of time. Agricultural treatises and manuals show that, from sowing, pruning, harvesting, and processing, particular tasks that were necessary to ensure a steady supply of food for the next year and beyond punctuated a farmer’s year. Studying food storage in particular shows how they planned for the future. Roman farmers stored and preserved their harvest, including grain, legumes, wine, and oil, to keep food available year-round. Storing food properly, however, was not limited to the food. Farmers had to select the right storage facilities and vessels. This paper looks at the storage vessels themselves, specifically dolia and barrels, to consider how farmers and merchants might have anticipated the future in relation to these vessels and how these anticipations guided their decision to use certain vessels. 

Large ceramic storage vessels known as dolia were costly investments. As storage containers for wine, oil, and other foods, dolia were important farm equipment that farmers invested in with caution. Cato the Elder advised estate owners not to trust readily the workshop’s reputation, but to visit the workshops and inspect the clay beds themselves. A passage in the Geoponika, a late antique farming manual, encouraged farmers to visit workshops and perform a test: if the dolium produced a good sound when a potential customer knocked on it, then it was a robust container. The quality of a dolium was important for its value and longevity. Recent excavations of the Villa Magna and Villa Somma show that some dolia were able to last more than three hundred years. But other issues regarding time surely came up. Moving a big, bulky dolium from the workshop to the farm was a lengthy and expensive endeavor. Installing dolia also required coordination and effort to bury them or build architectural features around them. Furthermore, their use required attention and care. Not only did farmers have to clean and maintain dolia at certain times of year, there was always the chance that a vessel would be damaged or broken. Varro warned against sealing dolia too soon into the fermentation process because the expansion of gas could burst the vessels and archaeological evidence reveals just how extensive dolium damage, and their repairs, could be.

Dolia were traditional storage containers, but a new player entered the game. Closed wooden containers known as barrels, which originated in more temperate regions in Northern Europe, became common bulk containers by the fourth century CE, if not earlier. Time was an important factor in the barrel’s rising popularity throughout the Mediterranean. Once cooperage was an established craft in Italy, farmers and merchants now had access to a bulk container that could be quickly manufactured and repaired. Moreover barrels cut down on labor and time in their use. Not only was it easier and faster to move barrels both on boats and carts, farmers and laborers no longer needed to transfer contents between containers as they did with dolia and amphorae. Using barrels, however, brought different expectations for storage quality and time. 

Session/Panel Title

Roman Anticipations: Material Cognitive and Affective Histories of the Roman Future

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