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Matt:

In short: Why are Greek urns rounded at the bottom? It's puzzled me for years. Even a tour guide at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art couldn't answer this. Greek urns were built rounded at the bottom, forcing the user to have a stand into which to put the urn to keep it from tipping over. In ancient times goblets were made this way to encourage mass consumption of whatever was being imbibed. Can't put it down? Might as well raise it to your lips! That doesn't hold for the much larger urn. I don't read the Reader much, so an e-mail response would be nice. Thanks.

-- Paul Jester, the Net

And hey, Paul, I'm not paid nearly enough to put up with this aggravation, so a big check from you would be nice. If the rest of Aliceland can make the big effort on Thursday, maybe you can too. The idea here at the Matthew Alice Cranium Consortium is to spread around the wealth of facts, not to scratch your personal intellectual itch. Every day I'm showered with notes from grateful readers saying I've provided them with answers to questions they didn't even know they had. So part of my mission is to continually remind as many people as possible how little they really know. Your question is just one more pebble to be dropped into the vast pond of ignorance. And as for the museum docent, well, people from New York just act like they know everything. When you cut 'em open and poke around, you find they're made of the same goofy stuff the rest of us are. Don't be fooled.

Maybe if you'd asked your question in Toronto you'd have gotten a better answer. The classical studies department of the University of Toronto maintains the Amphora Project, and they can answer pretty much anything you'd want to know about the old Greek (and Roman) jugs. Not all amphoras have pointy or rounded bottoms. Some sit on a flat foot like any other urn. But the ones you're inquiring about were plain, sturdy, utilitarian jugs used mainly for shipping oil, wine, olives, dates, honey, nuts, salted fish, and even pine tar. The conical or tear-drop-shaped urns were very strong, since the peg bottom was solid clay and was a continuous part of the urn itself. Footed urns were much more subject to breakage. But they're even more logical when you consider the need to fit thousands of urns in the hold of a ship. Time wasted trying to stand a flat-footed urn on a curved hull would have slowed the progress of civilization by centuries. Pointy-bottom urns could be nested in interlocked layers. They also fit neatly into donkeys' saddlebags for carrying water through the desert.

So you get your amphora where it's going -- then what? In wine shops, they might sit in holes dug in the floor or in tripods or clay rings. But here is another advantage. Merchants could pour very easily and precisely from a pointed amphora, because it could be held comfortably under the mouth and at the pointed end. And once the level of wine/oil/whatever was low enough, the urn could be left on the floor without spilling its contents, since the mouth would be raised above horizontal. When a wine shop emptied an amphora, it would go into a storage room, turned upside down to rest on its rim, to be reused.

So there you go, Paul. Ancient Greek merchants were no fools and might even have been smarter than the average New Yorker. Hope you catch a glimpse of this answer as you're wrapping fish in the Reader.

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