Finding Its Footing: The Puzzles of an Ancient Amphora

By Haddon Dine, Susanne Ebbinghaus
March 19, 2021
Index Magazine

Finding Its Footing: The Puzzles of an Ancient Amphora

There are two images side by side of a dark brown vessel with two curved handles. In the image on the left, the vessel has light surface crusts, dark patches, and no base. In the image on the right, the vessel’s surface is shiny and dark brown and black, with a base of the same color.
An amphora, with two bands of impressed decoration depicting horses and horsemen, shown before conservation (left) and after (right), Italic, 550–500 BCE. Buccheroid impasto. Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of the Misses Norton, 1920.44.313.

On a visit to the museums’ storeroom, curator Susanne Ebbinghaus took a closer look at an ancient amphora. The sturdy, sizable vessel was covered in accretions from being buried for millennia, further disfigured by earlier restorations and missing its base. For Index, Ebbinghaus and conservation fellow Haddon Dine share how they got the object back into shape and what they learned in the process.

During her first encounter with the object in the storeroom, Ebbinghaus was immediately intrigued by this vessel, which had entered the museums’ collections a century earlier. The amphora’s form is unusual for this type, especially how its handles project from its shoulders. The decoration consists of two bands of impressed, repeating figures that appeared to include horses and a rider, but the surface was too dirty to be sure. Clearly, the jar had potential to be a striking display piece in the galleries—after some long overdue TLC—so it was brought to conservation fellow Haddon Dine in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies for further examination and treatment. 

Dine scrutinized and documented the amphora in the Objects Lab, then we identified treatment goals together. These included cleaning the exterior, replacing the unsightly old restorations, and stabilizing cracks. But we also decided to “resurrect” the vessel and enable it to stand again. As it turned out, making a new base was not a straightforward process. It would require considerable discussion, work and re-working, as well as research. That research would ultimately lead to discoveries not just about the amphora but about other objects in the collections, as well.

From the Land of the Sabines 

The most noticeable feature of the amphora is its dark, almost black surface color. Originally, the surface would have been quite shiny. Dark brownish-gray or black wares of this kind are typical products of potters active in central Italy in the first millennium BCE. Such objects are best known from Etruscan tombs, but archaeological finds suggest that they were used by the living, too, and were also made by other peoples in the region. As we would come to learn in the course of our research (and discuss further below), this amphora can be attributed to the second half of the sixth century BCE and to a potter’s workshop located in the land of the Sabines, north of Rome. 

The amphora’s Sabine origin made its conservation seem even more worthwhile, as it would allow us to showcase the creativity of a people all too often overshadowed by their Greek and Roman neighbors. To most of us, the Sabines are familiar through myth rather than archaeology. Their story is closely entwined with the foundation of Rome. To help populate the new city, as Titus Livius narrates in his History of Rome, a plan was hatched to abduct the daughters of the neighboring Sabines during a festival. The resulting struggle between athletic male and youthful female bodies is exploited in the works of many artists of the Renaissance and later periods, such as Peter Paul Rubens, and it features prominently in prints in the Harvard Art Museums collections, as seen above.

The territory of the Sabines was largely agricultural, and prominent cities were few. Among the Romans, the Sabines were known for their austerity and strict moral values. However, defining a distinctive Sabine material culture, with features unique to their houses, tombs, and pottery, has posed a challenge to archaeologists.

Impasto and Bucchero

The amphora appears to have been thrown on the wheel, as there are circular grooves on the inside. The handles were formed by hand and would have been added to the body once its clay had dried to a leather-hard state. The smooth, shiny surface had been achieved by burnishing, and the decoration impressed with stamps. Individual stamps were used to render the star patterns of the topmost band, while a cylindrical stamp was rolled across the surface to impress a repeating figural scene in the two friezes below. 

The dark color of the vessel was created not by a glaze but by firing it in a reducing atmosphere. Still practiced today, reduction firing is employed to achieve a variety of color effects on ceramics; in this case, it was used to turn a reddish-brown terracotta vessel black. In reduction firing, organic material such as damp wood is added and the kiln closed, limiting the oxygen and creating smoky incomplete combustion. This causes some of the oxygen to be removed from the iron oxides in the clay. The process converts red-colored hematite (Fe2O3) to black iron oxides such as magnetite (Fe3O4), giving the vessel its dark surface color. (For a detailed explanation of reduction firing, read more here.) This conversion did not penetrate to the core of the amphora wall, which is still reddish-brown. 

Scholars distinguish two types of wares that existed next to one another in central Italy: impasto and bucchero. Simply put, impasto is characterized by its coarse clay and rough outer appearance, and bucchero is more refined. Impasto (from Italian impastare, “kneading together”) pottery often has a dark gray or brownish exterior, with a brown core, like the drinking cup illustrated on the left above. The shiny black surface of the cup on the right is typical for bucchero vessels (“bucchero” is derived from búcaro or pocaro, the respective Spanish and Portuguese words for red and black ceramics from the Americas fashionable in 17th- and 18th-century Europe). Our amphora falls into an in-between category that scholars have labeled with the somewhat unwieldy term “buccheroid impasto.”

Cleaning the Amphora and Redoing Prior Restorations 

As far as we know, the amphora has never been on display at Harvard, probably because of its condition. In addition to white and brown surface accretions from two and half millennia of burial, it showed evidence of several past restorations. On the rim, two pieces had been reattached and a loss filled. A large missing area on one side of the body and a gash through the other side had been filled with plaster. The plaster was painted, but the color did not match, and the old fills did not blend in well—they were distracting. Probably during a previous restoration, the areas around the fills had been slightly cleaned, making them even more noticeable. Moreover, the vessel had no foot, or base, to stand on.

We discussed the goals of the treatment: Dine would clean the exterior of the vessel to make the burnished surface visible and the stamped decoration more legible. She would remove the old restorations and redo the fills so the patched areas would be less distracting. We tentatively agreed that she should make a new base, but we knew that would take further planning.

Dine took off most of the surface encrustations and soil with deionized water, applied with swabs, brushes, and soft absorbent pads. Information can sometimes be gained from ancient encrustations, and new technologies might reveal further insights. In this case, there were many burial accretions inside the vessel, and these were left in place for future research. While Dine cleaned the vessel’s exterior surface, she removed the old plaster restorations by applying water to soften the material, before thinning and detaching it with a scalpel. 

After cleaning and reversing the prior restorations, Dine filled the losses with plaster and an acrylic spackle. Since these were all in smooth, plain parts of the ceramic surface, she inpainted them to match the vessel’s dark exterior. The losses are now less distracting, and the conservation materials used can be easily removed in the future.

Before Dine moved on to re-creating the missing base, archaeological illustrator Catherine Alexander came to the lab to draw the amphora. Her work carefully recorded the shape and size of the vessel, as well as the stamped decoration, as shown above. These drawings can be used by future researchers to readily compare features of different vessels. 

The cleaning of the relief decoration on the amphora shoulder, especially the raised areas, made it much easier to see the individual figures. Both friezes repeat the same unit consisting of a horse, another horse with rider, a mare with a foal in front, a person holding what appears to be an excited stallion by its bridle, and a geometric ornament (which may be a stylized plant). The equine theme alludes to the prestige of horse ownership, but the presence of a mare, foal, and stallion suggests horse breeding, and perhaps ultimately the concept of regeneration. Such relief decoration applied with a cylindrical stamp is quite frequent on Italic pottery, including an Etruscan cup in Harvard’s collections. To highlight the figure scene, the background could have been covered with red or yellow ocher pigment.

A Twin and a Tomb 

The vessel was missing its base by the time it entered the Harvard collections. After some discussion, we decided to make one. A new base would not only show the amphora’s original shape, it would also allow the vessel to stand by itself, and it could be easily removed in the future. But what should it look like? Ebbinghaus consulted a recent, massive reference work on bucchero pottery by noted Etruscan specialist Jean Gran-Aymerich.[1] This book, and the further references it provides, yielded both a “twin” and a tomb context for our amphora. 

Excavations undertaken in the 1980s in a tomb in a Sabine cemetery at Poggio Sommavilla, a town in the hills above the Tiber Valley north of Rome, brought to light another amphora with an ovoid body, a short neck, prominent handles, and impressed friezes of horses that appear to have been created with the same stamp as the Harvard amphora.[2] Clearly, the two amphorae were made, if not by the same potter, then at least in the same workshop. Other vessels from this region show similar shapes and decorative details. Indeed, further research revealed what had been forgotten during the 100 years since the amphora’s arrival at the museums, or perhaps even before: Harvard’s amphora also comes from a tomb carved into the hillside of modern Poggio Sommavilla, but one that had already been excavated in the late 19th century.

The finds recovered during the late 19th-century excavation of a chamber tomb at Poggio Sommavilla were acquired in 1897 by Joseph Clark Hoppin, a specialist in Greek vase painting who graduated from Harvard in 1893, from excavator and dealer Fausto Benedetti. Hoppin’s collection of Greek pottery and other artifacts came to the university after his death in 1925. Among the objects from his bequest is an Athenian red-figure krater (a mixing bowl for wine and water) that was imported to the Italic peninsula in the fifth century BCE and deposited in the Poggio Sommavilla tomb. This krater appears in a drawing made after the tomb was excavated (seen above), with the Harvard amphora to its right.[3] 

According to Hoppin, the other tomb finds were of local manufacture and “consisted of a number of undecorated vases, bronzes, beads and other objects of no importance.”[4] Consequently, he seems to have passed on some of these objects to others, including our amphora. The amphora was given to the museums by Elizabeth Gaskell Norton and Margaret Norton, daughters of Harvard’s prominent art history professor Charles Eliot Norton. Hoppin was friends with their brother Richard, a fellow archaeologist. A further Norton gift, an impasto wine pitcher, turns out to be another of the Poggio Sommavilla finds (it can be spotted to the left of the krater in the drawing). 

We are taking a close look at our collections and have already identified additional objects that appear to have been part of the Sabine tomb. These include a jar of light-colored clay with simple painted decoration, a small black-slipped pitcher, and perhaps also a hammered copper dish with a long handle. It is particularly exciting to be able to draw connections between these individual objects because they are of different dates. Chamber tombs like the one at Poggio Sommavilla often saw frequent reuse over extended periods of time. In this case, the excavation report suggests three separate burials in a span of two or three centuries. Now that we know their context, even the plain, unremarkable objects acquire meaning as they allow us to reconstruct the material culture of the Sabines over the ages and to glimpse how they provided for their dead.

There are two images side by side of a dark brown vessel with two curved handles. In the image on the left, the vessel has light surface crusts, dark patches, and no base. In the image on the right, the vessel’s surface is shiny and dark brown and black, with a base of the same color.
Conservation fellow Haddon Dine shapes a new base for the amphora with clay tools on a record turntable, a technique developed by senior objects conservator Tony Sigel.

A New Base at Last

As you can see in the late 19th-century sketch of the group of tomb objects above, the amphora has a foot. A more detailed drawing in an early excavation report (also illustrated above)[5] indicates that the foot was only partly preserved, and it does not give a good indication of what it looked like. Instead, we decided to take the “twin” amphora as our guide. Using drawings and photographs of this vessel to inform the reconstruction of the proportions and profile, Dine made a base out of light gray modeling clay. She first built it by hand and then shaped it with clay tools on a record turntable, a technique developed by senior objects conservator Tony Sigel. The modeling clay, which, unlike real clay, does not contain water and does not dry, cannot be thrown on a potter’s wheel, but it can be trimmed with clay tools, and the turntable allows this to be done easily and evenly.

Using a matboard profile based on the drawing of the comparable vessel, Dine checked the clay base repeatedly, continuously shaping it. She took measurements with calipers and compared them to the proportions of the twin and the surviving part of our amphora. To enable test-fitting of the base, Dine built a four-legged foam support with a custom carved hole for the vessel to sit in. This allowed the ceramic to hover over the base of modeling clay without disturbing it. 

Because the Harvard vessel has slightly different proportions from the comparable vessel, there was an element of inference. After many iterations of shaping, adjusting, measuring, and discussing, we reached a final version in the modeling clay. Dine made a silicone mold of the clay base and then cast a plaster version. She consolidated the plaster with an acrylic resin to strengthen it and make it less absorbent. 

Previously, the amphora had been stored on its side on padded supports. Just before the pandemic-related closure of the museums in March 2020, Dine attached the new plaster base to the ceramic. This moment when the vessel could stand on its own again was exciting! Painting the base had to wait until the museums’ conservators could return to the lab in mid-October, after several months of working from home.

While we chose to paint the other smaller losses in the rim and body of the amphora to match the surrounding ceramic surface, we decided to paint the base in a way that renders it discernible from the ancient part of the vessel. The small fills were in undecorated areas, so there was no inference involved in making them blend in. The plaster foot is our best possible estimate of the original base, but it is still just a (reasonably well-informed) guess. We did not want the base to be too obtrusive and jarring, however. The challenge, then, was to create a restoration that would be recognizable as such but not detract from the vessel itself. 

To achieve a subtle distinction, Dine created a painted surface made up of numerous short brushstrokes of different colors, which blend in from a distance but are legible when one takes a closer look. This solution was inspired by a technique developed in mid-20th century Italy for the conservation of paintings, referred to as tratteggio

Now that it can stand again, we plan to put the amphora on display together with other objects from the Sabine tomb in a gallery that currently is focused almost exclusively on Greek art. There, the tomb finds will play a double role: they will draw attention to the skills of potters active in pre-Roman Italy, and they will provide further context for the many Athenian vases on view. The Italian peninsula was a major market for the products of Athenian potters’ workshops; like the red-figure krater detailed above, many other vases in the collections were exported to Italy in the course of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE and were eventually placed in the richly furnished graves of Etruscans, Sabines, and other Italic peoples. This chapter in the story of Greek pottery often remains untold.[6] 

Another all too frequently unsung story: the work of conservators. Their efforts are rarely highlighted in the galleries but are critical for a deeper understanding of objects. In this case, questions raised by the conservation treatment of the amphora drove the research into the vessel’s history, which in turn helped inform decisions made during treatment. Close collaboration between conservator and curator often reveals more detailed information on how objects were made, on their context and use, and on the extent of earlier conservation interventions. This allows us to see ancient objects in a state closer to their original one. Look at the newly conserved amphora in the image below and in further views online. Can you spot the restored areas?

Haddon Dine is the objects conservation fellow in the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies, and Susanne Ebbinghaus is the George M.A. Hanfmann Curator of Ancient Art and Head of the Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art.


[1] Jean Gran-Aymerich, Les vases de bucchero: Le monde étrusque entre orient et occident, Bibliotheca archaeologica 55 (Rome: L’Erma di Bretschneider, 2017). 

[2] Giovanna Alvino, ed., I Sabini: La vita, la morte, gli dèi (Rome: Armando, 1997), 61–63, no. 6.1. 

[3] Paola Santoro, ed., Civiltà arcaica dei Sabini nella valle del Tevere, III: Rilettura critica della necropoli di Poggia Sommavilla (Rome: Consiglio nazionale delle ricerche, 1977), 86–87, Figs. 24–25. The drawing seems to have been made after a photograph, but so far we have not been able to locate the latter.

[4] Joseph Clark Hoppin and Albert Gallatin, Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, U.S.A., Vol. 1: Hoppin and Gallatin Collections (Paris: Librairie Ancienne Edouard Champion, 1926), 8, Pl. 12, 1–2. 

[5] A. Pasqui, “X. Poggio Sommavilla,” Notizie degli scavi di antichità comunicate alla R. Accademia dei Lincei (Rome: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 1896), 487, Fig. 9.

[6] But see most recently, Sheramy D. Bundrick, Athens, Etruria, and the Many Lives of Greek Figured Pottery (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2019).