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The Broken Pot Mountain in Rome

Updated on November 16, 2015
Monte Testaccio
Monte Testaccio | Source

In the southern part, near the Tiber River, on the outskirts of the Rome, is where the high hill named Monte Testaccio is located, or like the locals love to call it: The Broken Pot Mountain. When you look at it from a distance it looks not that different from any other hill. But if you come closer and take a better look it will amaze you, for the “hill” is nothing but the pieces of ancient amphorae—Roman pottery that was used for storage. However this site in particular has nothing but olive oil amphorae, showing the amazing and immense need the Romans had for olive oil, and how much of it was consumed.

Layers of amphorae and shards
Layers of amphorae and shards | Source

The site is definitely impressive, for the “mountain” covers more than a kilometer of territory in its circumference and is about 36 meters (115 feet) high. The rough estimate archeologists and scientists give trying to count amphorae, suggests that there are about 53 million broken olive oil amphorae there, and if you look at it from the sky it will have a roughly triangular shape. Even though these days the Mountain of Broken Pots is a relatively small hill, it is said that in ancient times it was much higher and much bigger, and was the highest artificial hill in Rome, in fact one of the highest in the entire ancient world.

Roman pottery, including an olive oil amphora
Roman pottery, including an olive oil amphora | Source

The olive oil that was stored in the amphorae before they were thrown away usually came from Spain or Africa, although Spain was at that time the greatest producer of olive oil in the world, much like today. All of those 53 million amphorae would have held about 6 billion liters of oil, or 1.5 million gallons. That’s enough liquid to fill a pool about the size of a football field, if it was 10 feet deep. Because the jars would have been too infused with oil, and the fact that the clay used to make them was coarser than most made them more susceptible to being filled with the oil, they could only be used once instead of being recycled like other Roman amphorae. The oil left over would have gone smelly and rotten, so it had to be disposed of. Also the design of the pot, which was very large and curved, made it hard to recycle it into something else, like pipes. Other amphorae could have been pounded down to be mixed with concrete, but not only were these olive oil vessels not a good shape for doing so, but they were very thick and hard to break, so it was much easier and less expensive to just throw them away.

The Romans knew this, of course, as the pots were designed with a cheaper clay so that getting rid of them wouldn’t have been a waste of money and their contents could go rotten, and because of this there was an extremely organized system in play dealing with these discarded amphorae.

The terraces of the mountain
The terraces of the mountain | Source

Archeological digs in the site have shown that the Monte Testaccio was created with the intention of being a refuse dump, rather than something that had just evolved over time as these kinds of places sometimes do. It was built as a mound raised on terraces that was made entirely of the amphorae, themselves. The walls of the terraces were made with mostly-intact amphorae vessels, with broken shards filling the empty spaces to hold them in place, so that the layer would be stable and heavy enough to bear the weight of the other layers of rubble on top of them. New arrivals of amphorae were most likely carried to the very top of the mound and broken up, then the resulting shards scattered to where the overseers of the compound saw fit. All of the jars were sprinkled with lime so that the rotting oil wouldn’t smell and carry cross the city where the people lived, and with this the rubble dump was not only kept orderly but without even interfering with anyone’s lives.

Layers of broken amphorae
Layers of broken amphorae | Source

It is probably hard for us to imagine how so much oil could be used, but from our modern day perspective, we mostly use olive oil in cooking. For the Romans and the ancient world it was much more important. Of course it was also used in food, but Rome was lit by oil. Lower quality oils made with a higher acidity content, making them inedible, was used as fuel for lamps. It was the only way for the citizens to see at night (torches were used for outside and candles were not widely used) and some public buildings were even required to provide light. It was also how the Romans cleaned themselves. Instead of using soap in the bath they would rub oil all over their bodies and scrape it off along with all the dirt and sweat it collected—a surprisingly efficient method. Wealthier patricians could even use scented oils, and considering how much the Romans loved their baths and went to them every single day, this was a lot of oil consumed by a million people. It was a necessity of life for them.

Even slaves needed oil to use, despite their low status in the empire. There were five types used by the citizens that were based on when the olives were pressed: while they were still green (albis), when they were starting to ripen (virde), when they had ripened fully (maturum), the olives that had fallen from the tree (caducum), and then the rotten which was referred to as cibarium. The cibariumwas only for the slaves to use, although merchants sometimes managed to sell them to ignorant foreigners who didn’t know any better. But no matter whom you were, emperor or slave, you needed oil and you got it. It’s easy to see how the Mountain of Broken Pots really became like a mountain through time.

The Monte Testaccio is one of the many engineering marvels of Rome, although probably not on the scale you would expect. Made entirely of the trash it held, but organized and built so that it could hold itself up. No other materials were used so nothing needed to be bought, only the lime that masked the smell of the garbage. Extremely efficient, as one can expect from the Romans, and one of the glimpses into their lives that can show you just what it was like to live in the most populated city in the world.

Monte Testaccio
Monte Testaccio | Source

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