Round unglazed Italian costrel marked with a "W"
Buffware costrel marked with a “W”
  • Material – Earthenware
  • Place of Origin – Italy
  • Date – 17th century
  • Location – Collections

Starred costrels are an early time marker for Virginia sites. Previously thought to have been made on the Iberian Peninsula, analysis of the clay fabric of examples found at James Fort indicates that these were almost certainly made in Italy, probably Liguria.

The costrels are primarily found in the United Kingdom and Virginia, and near navigable water. In Virginia they generally are found on sites occupied between c. 1607 to 1645, and finding two or more per household is not unusual. In the United Kingdom at least 17 vessels have been reported from the London area (Roy Stephenson 1998, pers. comm.). Elsewhere in the United Kingdom they have been reported from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the northeast to Cork in southern Ireland (Pearson 1979:10, Table 10; Meenan 1992: 188; John G. Hurst and Alan Vince 1998, pers. comm.). In this thin distribution, all but two come from ports or within 15 miles of the sea; the two vessels were found inland but on the headwaters of the Thames and the Severn. (John G. Hurst and Alan Vince 1998, pers. comm.). Beyond the United Kingdom, there are no known finds of these costrels in Europe (John G. Hurst 1995, pers. comm.). Outside of Virginia, the only other findspots in the Western Hemisphere are St. Mary’s City, Maryland; Ferryland, Newfoundland (John Allan 1998, pers. comm.); King’s Castle, Bermuda, and also in Bermuda, the Warwick wreck (Noel Hume 1995:41). The c. 1608-1610 cellar well at Jamestown provides the earliest date for these vessels in the New World. It seems almost certain that the costrels were being traded from English ships, and that the importers had strong ties to Virginia. The form implies liquid contents, and liquids were typically shipped in bulk. One clue to their contents is the fact that in Virginia a number of these costrels have been excavated in restorable, almost intact condition. Pairs have been found in a couple of instances, which suggests that they were purposely buried to preserve their contents. Another clue is a comment from the first president of the Virginia colony, Edward-Maria Wingfield, who noted in 1607 that he buried his bottles of oil to keep them from spoiling in the “great heate” of Virginia. Thus it is likely that these containers from the Ligurian coastal region of Italy, contained olive oil, historically produced in the region, as well.


Fabric: Soft and chalky, usually buff to very pale yellow, but can also be pale brown. Sherds are easily mistaken for tin-glaze missing its glaze, and the costrels may have come from kilns primarily producing tin-glazed products.

Glaze: Although sometimes mistaken for tin-glaze, chemical analysis of a Jamestown example found the glaze to be lead (Jelks 1958:205). It usually does not reach the base, is usually extremely thin, and typically surviving only in isolated patches. This survival in pits is the best way to distinguish costrel fragments from tin-glaze which has lost its surface. Under the glaze on the upper shoulders, some costrels exhibit a crude, eight-pointed star which can be yellow, red, or blue (Hurst et al. 1986:63). Blue spirals have also been found (Outlaw 1990:116, 119).

Form: Standing costrels are rounded with a long tapering neck flanked by two vertical loop handles. Two sides are flattened, bases are flat and slightly splayed. They stand about 22 cm tall.

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Hurst, John G., David S. Neal, and H.J.E. van Beuningen (1986) Pottery Produced and Traded in North-West Europe 1350-1650. Rotterdam Papers VI. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen, Rotterdam.

Jelks, Edward B. (1958) Ceramics from Jamestown. In Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, John L. Cotter, editor, pp. 201-212. United States Department of the Interior, Washington D. C.

Noël Hume, Ivor (1995) Shipwreck! History from the Bermuda Reefs. Capstan Publications, Hamilton, Bermuda.

Outlaw, Alain Charles (1990) Governor’s Land: Archaeology of Early Seventeenth-Century Virginia Settlements. University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Wingfield, Edward Maria (1607) A Discourse of Virginia. Charles Deane, editor. Reprinted 1860. Privately printed, Boston, MA.