Good ideas are rarely new. Container ships revolutionized liner shipping in the 1960s and 70s. Nevertheless, the idea of carrying cargo in easily handled standardized containers goes back at least 2,000 years.
I was reminded of this when reading about the recent discovery of a shipwreck found near the fishing port of Fiskardo on the north coast of Kefalonia, Greece, dating between 1 BC and AD 1, according to Greek researchers. The upper portion of the 34-meter Roman ship is gone, but its cargo of an estimated 6,0000 amphorae is in remarkably good shape. The Daily Mail notes that the Fiskardo shipwreck is one of the largest four found in the Mediterranean Sea, and the largest yet found in the eastern Mediterranean.
An amphora is a distinctive type of clay container usually with two handles, a narrow neck, and often a pointed base. It was widely used in early Mediterranean shipping to carry both liquids and dry goods. While they are commonly associated with wine, they were also used to transport grains and other goods that needed protection from the weather. They came in a variety of different sizes ranging from 5′ tall to less than a foot high. Most were around 3′ tall and carried around 100 pounds of cargo. The pointed end made them easy to sit upright in sand or soil and they could either be carried by one or two persons using the handles or be rolled up a ramp to the ship for loading.
In a very real sense, the amphorae carrying ships of the dawn of the Common Era were the ancient equivalents of modern container ships of our day. Like containers on modern ships, the amphorae were more or less standardized, relatively easy to load with the twin handles, and easy to stack in the ship’s holds so that they did not shift in transit. Grates could be used to secure the pointed bases, different in form but conceptually similar to a modern ship’s container cell guides.
While different in scale, material, and configuration, the ancient amphorae carrying ships and modern container ships were both designed to meet the same needs for economically loading and securing cargo, despite being separated by several thousand years.
As Mark Twain wrote, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”
Thanks to Alaric Bond for contributing to this post.