Historians know that humans have used clay storage containers for thousands of years mainly for the storing of food and beverage items. By perfecting the manipulation of clay it was possible for the first time to protect food from the elements with with relatively airtight jars which could be sealed by animal skin or paraffin wax. For the first time ever humans were able to move perishable goods over long distances and keep the bounty of the harvest in storage for the times later in the year.
Perhaps the greatest testament to the popularity of these clay containers is Monte Testaccio which can be found in the center of one of the world’s most ancient cities, Rome. Not a true mountain, Monte Testaccio is perhaps the world’s oldest scrapyard for used storage containers. For hundreds of years Romans disposed of used clay pots and vases known as amphorae. popularly used for the storage and transportation of wine, amphorae were relied upon by ancient Romans for everyday use. However these fragile clay storage containers were only useful for storage when in pristine condition. Relatively inexpensive amphorae could be discarded with little regard when the slightest flaw was discovered. As the contents were infinitely more valuable than the broken container.
From the first century BC until the third century BC Romans created Monte Testaccio by disposing of hundreds of thousands of olive oil containers. Historians speculate that these 70 L containers were too difficult to recycle into other uses and therefore were discarded creating a mountain of broken pottery hundreds of feet high and covering 20,000 m². In the intervening centuries this mountain of discarded storage containers has served as a geographical landmark in Rome which at times has had with religious and military significance.
Archaeologists began studying the mountain in the 1870s. It has provided fascinating insight into the culinary lifestyle of ancient Rome. The site is adjacent to what was once the cities governmental olive oil reserve. By excavation and study of the discarded storage containers found at various levels throughout the mountain experts have sermons that at its height in the second century BC Rome was importing up to 7.5 million liters of olive oil per year. From this historians can extrapolate information previously unknown of Rome in ancient times such as population and the reach of trade partnerships. Even today archaeologists still plumb the depths of Monte Testaccio in search of more artifacts to help flesh out our ideas of life in ancient Rome. This process is made easier by the very structure of the mountain itself. As explorers have discovered the disposal of these clay storage containers was a highly organized and government regulated activity. Build of several tiered levels over the centuries the pile was constructed by carrying intact clay storage containers to the top on the backs of donkeys. The containers were then broken and formed into tightly packed tiers which were then covered with lime ostensibly to control the stench of rotting oil, but conveniently serving as an excellent preservative for the delicate shards themselves. This highly regulated system of storage has made study by archaeologists highly productive.