22 - Quantifying the Value of Fine Attic Pottery as a Trade Good


Noah Simmons, University of Arizona


The prices and costs of the shipped export of fine figured pottery from Athens in the fifth century B.C.E. have been hotly debated in scholarship. Major questions remain: (1) whether this type of pottery was a prized luxury good or simply ballast that could be crammed into empty space within the hold, and (2) whether volume or weight was of greater importance to the ancient merchant in packing their hold.

I approach these questions in a novel way: I quantify the average cost of hold weight and volume on a merchant ship through an analysis of the goods that comprised the bulk of trade: olive oil and wine in amphorae. This is then compared to the known prices, weights, and volumes of fine figured pottery. This poster determines how efficiently the pottery used the volume and weight available in the hold to convey value across the Mediterranean.

I compiled a dataset of 35 fifth-century Attic vases of various shape with known prices, weights, and volumes. Price data mostly comes from the pricemarks inscribed on the vases themselves. The analysis shows that vases were, broadly, less efficient at storing value per volume but more efficient at storing value per weight in comparison to other cargo. Packaged olive oil is calculated to be worth 2.00 obol/liter (volume) and 2.12 obol/kg, (weight) wine: 1.33 obol/liter and 1.37 obol/kg. Fine pottery is worth 0.6 obol/liter but 3.01 obol/kg. Thus, most hold space was taken up by the goods that would most effectively use the space to convey value: olive oil and wine. Fine-figured pottery, which was generally lighter but more voluminous per obol, was placed in and around the olive oil and wine amphorae to make best use of the remaining space and maximize the value of the cargo.