Ancient jars, essential to commerce, see daylight at MU museum

Thursday, April 1, 2010 | 5:53 p.m. CDT; updated 8:21 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 1, 2010
MU Museum of Art and Archaeology exhibit preparator Barbara Smith unwraps one of several transport amphoras on Thursday. The transport amphoras carried a variety of products such as oil, fruit and honey and were shipped throughout the ancient Mediterranean region.

COLUMBIA — A pair of staffers gingerly carried a half dozen heavy clay jars up a ladder to their new perches in the Museum of Art and Archaeology at MU. They babied the jars, each swaddled in a bundle of blankets, lifting them off pushcarts before handing them up the ladder and setting them carefully down. People in the gallery watched, as if it were a delicate ballet.

These ancient ceramic jars, perhaps recovered from shipwrecks or ancient wine cellars, were the cause of the buzz in the usually muted Weinberg Gallery.

If you go

What: Amphora collection at the Museum of Art and Archaeology

Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Where: Pickard Hall, east side of Francis Quadrangle, MU

Admission: Free

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The jars, singularly called amphora, had been in basement storage and were being hoisted to a new display area as part of a push to showcase more of the museum's collection. Used to carry, store and ship grains, dry goods, fish sauce (called garum, the ancient catch-all condiment), fruits, honey and olive oils, amphorae were the ancient equivalent of Tupperware, retail display and shipping containers all in one. Although experts can hypothesize about what they were used for, most of it is guesswork.

"We have some ideas of what they were used for, but it remains speculative," said Benton Kidd, associate curator for ancient art at the MU museum.

Wide mouths, narrow necks and large bellies are characteristics of the typically two-handled ceramic vases, Kidd said. Many amphorae have pointed bottoms to facilitate easy pouring. Merchants may have used them to display their wares at a stand in the market, and an olive oil producer may have had them loaded onto ships and sent around the Mediterranean Sea. Amphorae were an essential part of ancient commerce.

The museum has retrofitted an area above one of its permanent display cases to exhibit the jars, which have been collected from Spain, France, Sicily, Greece and northern Africa. The retrofitting is necessary for the museum, which only has limited space to display its 15,000 pieces.

"We only have about 5 percent of the collection out," Kidd said. The amphorae were taking up a lot of space, and there was a desire get them out of the way in storage and on display, Kidd said.

A large collection of amphorae were discovered in Oplontis, Italy, a town neighboring the more famous Pompeii, and, like Pompeii, preserved nearly perfectly in an ashen time capsule. The Villa Poppaea, owned by the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, is one of the best-preserved sites covered by the Mount Vesuvius eruption. The basement of the villa was likely used as a wine cellar and contained a large collection of amphorae, though none of the Villa Poppaea amphorae is included in the collection at the MU museum.

The MU amphorae were a gift from Union Station in Kansas City, with which the museum has had business relations. In 2007, the MU museum lent some pieces for Union Station's "Dead Sea Scrolls" exhibit.

In an effort to display as many of its pieces as possible with such limited space, the museum routinely rotates its collection. Three times a year, the museum sets up a temporary exhibit in one of its galleries. The amphorae have now found a place in the permanent collection and will be available for people to enjoy year round.

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