Globular Spanish olive jar
Spanish olive jar

Seville-type olive jars appear in the Americas by 1554, and with only subtle changes in form, continue into the 18th century, with some variations being made as late as 1839 (Marken 1994:105, 129-138). They are common on 17th-century Virginia sites and are found “through the Americas and up to northwest Europe along both sides of the North Sea . . . north to Bergen, Norway” (Hurst et al. 1986:66). Hurst also reports olive jars from the Pacific Ocean (1995:46). As large containers, olive jars transported a variety of contents, including bullets, capers, beans, chick peas, lard, tar, wine, olives in brine, and olive oil (Goggin 1960:6; Pernambuca de Mello 1979:221). In the 16th century, they were sometimes also shipped empty, accompanying barrels of wine (Deagan 1987:31). Empty jars were also used architecturally in the Spanish colonies to infill roof vaults and build walls (Deagan 1987:32; Marken 1994:42).

The Virginia Company Records contain what is very likely a direct reference to olive jars; in June 1623 Robert Bennett acknowledged the arrival of “750 jarse of oylle” from Spain (Kingsbury 1935:220). The exact size of this shipment would depend on the type of olive jar used, and perhaps luck. Richard Frethorne, writing for supplies in 1623, said: “oile. . .is verie good, but. . .there is greate losse in leakinge” (Kingsbury 1935:60). Volume measurements of examples from shipwrecks imply Type A oblong jars were meant to hold the Castilian wine arroba of 4.26 gallons, although two 1695 examples seem to be for the Castilian oil arroba of 3.31 gallons (Marken 1994:127). Late 16th-century Type B globular jars appear to be half of an oil arroba (1.65 gallons), but the early 17th-century sample (7 jars) shows an average volume of about 1.56 gallons (Marken 1994:123). Type C carrot-shaped jars in the sample (3 jars) had an average volume of about 0.57 gallons (Marken 1994:123). Bennett’s 1623 oil probably came in Type A or B jars, the forms most commonly found in Virginia, and 16th-century records show a preference for shipping oil in one or one half arroba containers (Pleguezuelo-Hernandez 1993:48). Presumably this was olive oil; Smith lists “1 gallon of oyle” as part of the “Victuall for a whole yeare for a man” (Barbour 1986:2:322). In Type A jars, Bennett would have received about 2,482 gallons, and in Type B, about 1,237 gallons. The troubles of 1622 and the contagion-ship Abigail had reduced English Virginia to about 500 souls (Noel Hume 1994:379), and even if new colonists in the 1623 supplies doubled that population, Bennett’s single shipment would still represent more than a year’s supply for the entire colony.


Fabric: A thick, pinkish buff fabric with coarse sand, often with large air pockets.

Glaze: Usually unglazed, but sometimes has an internal green or yellow glaze. The exterior exhibits a very soft and thin white coating, which is being used as the characteristic separating Seville olive jars from those of Merida type.

Form: These are jars for shipping and storage, with three general shapes. Goggin (1960) established a basic typology still in use, designating the oblong shape as Type A, the globular form as Type B, and the tapering “carrot-shape” as Type C (Hurst et al. 1986:66). All have a constricted neck and a thick rim, some of which have been found with pitch-covered corks still in place (Marken 1994:116). Underwater archaeology and documentary evidence indicate the jars also had a woven casing, which may have included a carrying loop, as seen on the later Tuscan oil jars (Ashdown 1972:150; Pleguezuelo-Hernandez 1993:48; Marken 1994:118-119).