A jar of extra Virgil olive oil, please: Archaeologists discover Virgil quote inside an olive oil-filled amphora

Looking for something good to read? Try the inside of the olive oil jar resting in your kitchen — you just might find something interesting etched into the glass.

In all seriousness, that’s exactly what a team of archaeologists working in Córdoba, Spain discovered a few years ago: an 1,800-year-old fragment of an amphora that once contained olive oil, inscribed on the inside with a brief snippet of a Virgil poem written in Latin. Their findings are finally coming to light after being published earlier this month in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

“We thought it might be something quite exceptional because you hardly ever get more than a line or two of engravings on an amphora,” Iván González Tobar, one of the archaeologists on the team, told The Guardian. “This one had four or five lines. While we didn’t understand it, we thought it was quite special.”

According to their paper, it’s likely the first literary quotation to have been carved into an amphora. It’s not unusual for amphorae to feature inscriptions, but they’re typically inscribed with basic administrative information relating to their production or taxation — not quotes from major works of literature. 

While Virgil is most revered for writing the epic poem Aeneid, this amphora features a quote from a slightly older and lesser-known work of his: the Georgics. But identifying the text as such proved to be a little bit tricky: It was apparently rife with misspelled words. The researchers say it’s a fitting poem for a jar that once contained olive oil — the text deals with farming instructions, and the fragment was found in a region known for producing olive oil.

The fragment — which is only about 2.4” by 3.1” in size — is also an interesting glimpse into how much the Latin alphabet has evolved over the two millennia since its creation. To the untrained eye, it can be difficult to even make out the fact that it’s written using the same script we use today when we write English, Spanish, French, and a whole host of other languages.

The “A” character, for example, doesn’t have the horizontal stroke in the middle, instead resembling the Greek character lambda, “Λ.” Additionally, the text only uses capital or upper-case letters, as lower-case letters hadn’t developed until roughly the 9th century.

Still, if one strains hard enough, readers of a Latin script can slowly make out the letters “AUONIAM PINGUI” in the first line of the text.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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