Globular Spanish olive jar
Spanish coarseware olive jar
  • Material – Earthenware
  • Place of Origin – Spain
  • Date – 16th-17th century
  • Location – Collections

Two very different vessel forms identified as Spanish coarseware are represented in the James Fort archaeological collection. With a coarse, unglazed fabric, olive jars comprise the largest assemblage. A unique, lead-glazed coarseware mercury jar is also believed to be of Spanish origin.

Evolving from an amphorae shape, olive jars were manufactured in Seville from the 16th century.   The term olive jar is misleading because they were made as shipping containers of more than olives or olive oil.  They held other commodities, as well, such as bullets, capers, beans and chick peas, lard, tar, and wine.  The “750 jarse of oylle” from Spain that colonist Robert Bennett received in June 1623 were probably contained in jars such as these. According to ceramic historian Taft Kiser, the oil in Bennett’s shipment may have totaled from 1,237 to 2,482 gallons. If, as John Smith noted that “1 gallon of oyle” was part of the “Victuall for a whole yeare for a man,” then the Bennett shipment in 1623 represented at least a year’s supply for the entire colony.

A 1960 typology established by John Goggin identified three types of olive jars: Type A, oblong-shaped; Type B, globular-shaped; and Type C, carrot-shaped. Found throughout the British-colonial sites in Virginia, both oblong-shaped and globular-shaped olive jars have been recovered at James Fort from contexts dating as early as 1610. The total number of olive jars recovered from the fort excavation, however, is small. One globular jar dating to the second decade of the 17th century is coated entirely on the interior with pitch. Unique in the collection are sherds of an olive jar with an open, everted rim that resembles 15th and 16th century examples.

A single, distinctive coarseware jar made in Spain was recovered from James Fort. Parallels to this object have been discovered in Southampton and London, England, from contexts dating as early as the 15th century. Evidence suggests that the small jar with thick walls was used as a container for mercury. Mercury most assuredly was brought to Jamestown for medicinal purposes and probably also for extracting gold and silver from their ores.    


Fabric: The fabric of olive jars is pink to pinkish-buff with a gray core, and it contains abundant coarse quartz sand inclusions, fissures, and often large air pockets. The mercury jar has a reddish, slightly micaceous, sandy fabric with some voids.

Glaze: Most James Fort olive jars are unglazed; however, their exteriors are washed with a thin slip that appears whitish-buff. One ring rim is covered on the interior and exterior with lead glaze appearing brown.  The mercury jar has a much decayed interior and exterior lead glaze with copper oxide appearing emerald green. 

Form: Both Type A and Type B olive jars with thick collar-like, or ring, rims have been recovered from James Fort. A single jar with an everted rim resembles an olive jar form that dates to the 15th and 16th centuries. Only the lowermost section of the mercury jar was recovered.  The walls are thick, and the base is splayed.

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Deagan, Kathleen (1987) Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean, 1500-1800. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Goggin, John M. (1960) The Spanish Olive Jar: an Introductory Study. In Papers in Caribbean Anthropology 62. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, New Haven, CT.

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.

Kiser, Taft (2015) Spanish Olive Jars. Manuscript, Jamestown Rediscovery, Jamestown, VA. 

Kingsbury, Susan Myra (editor) (1906) The Records of the Virginia Company of London. United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C.

Medieval Pottery Research Group (1998) A Guide to the Classification of Medieval Ceramic Forms. Medieval Pottery Research Group Occasional Paper 1. Medieval Pottery Research Group, London. 

Straube, Bly (2015) Mercury Jar. Manuscript, Jamestown Rediscovery, Jamestown, VA. 

Woodall, John (1655) The surgeons mate or Military & domestique surgery. Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership, University of Michigan. <> Accessed July 3, 2020.