More than 60 years ago Sir Mortimer Wheeler proved that Roman pottery had made it all the way from Italy to India: the characteristic bright red of Samian ware, bearing the stamp of the Vibieni of Arezzo, showed up in his trenches at the ancient port of Arikamedu, on the southeastern coast near Pondicherry. Numerous other finds across India have since strengthened the connection, including many wine jars or amphorae.
A new study now suggests that many of these came from Mesopotamia, not the Mediterranean, and that the triangular trade between India, the Persian Gulf and the ports of Roman Egypt on the Red Sea was much more complex than hitherto thought.
“Roman amphorae, together with Roman coinage, are the most important artefacts for documenting exchange between the Roman Empire and India,” Dr Roberta Tomber says in Antiquity. “Since many Roman amphorae are well-dated and well-provenanced, they represent an untapped resource for the understanding of Indian Ocean contact.”
More than 10,000 Roman coins are known from southern India alone, and although there are growing numbers of amphorae reported, identification is more problematic, Tomber says. Her survey has confirmed the presence of such wine jars from 31 sites, but at about half these sites it was also discovered that amphora sherds thought to be Roman were actually Mesopotamian in origin.
In ten cases there were only Mesopotamian sherds present. These were in the form of “torpedo jars”, tall cylindrical peg-footed amphorae, common in Mesopotamia and the Gulf but not hitherto noted in India. Fragments of the rims and bodies could be mistaken for Roman wares made in Syria and Anatolia, as indeed they have been, and their dates span the Roman period from around the time of Christ onwards, although they also continue into early Islamic times in the seventh century.
Torpedo jars are lined with bitumen to keep their liquid contents from evaporating, and may have been the dequre of Sasanian texts: if so, this suggests a wine-drinking clientele in contemporary India. They are found mainly between Karachi and Bombay in areas under Sasanian influence, and inland towards Delhi, and seem to have been imported into India throughout their period of manufacture in Mesopotamia.
Some got as far as Sri Lanka and the east coast near Chennai (Madras), and others were found at ports on the coasts of Yemen and Somalia. Roman amphorae are found in a similar pattern, though rarely on the same sites: it would be interesting to know if they travelled in the same ships, Tomber notes.
The port of Qana, on the coast of Yemen and an important point in the frankincense trade, may have been an entrepôt for both Roman and Mesopotamian goods arriving from the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf respectively. It has not yielded the full range of Late Roman amphorae found in India, however, and other places may have played an equal role. The overall distribution of Roman amphorae and torpedo jars suggests three seaborne routes to India, Dr Tomber proposes. One ran direct from the Gulf, one direct from ports such as Berenike on the Red Sea coast of Egypt, and one via Qana.
Western India was influenced by wave upon wave of invaders, from the Greeks to the Parthians, Scythians, Kushanas and Sasanians, and was at a nexus of trade routes. The recognition of Mesopotamian jars for finds formerly thought to be Roman has made the picture both clearer and more complicated.