Drug Jars

Project details

  • Object number –
  • Material – Earthenware
  • Place of Origin –
  • Date –
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Health & Hygiene

The design on these jars contains centuries of culture carried on the hot winds of the spice route through Asia and the Middle East. Such jars brought aromatic spices, delicious citrus fruits, and mystical medicines to Europe’s doors. Such jars may have come to Jamestown with a young German scientist in 1607 or two apothecaries who landed in January 1608. They were here not just to cure the ill inside James Fort but to experiment with valuable new remedies from unique American herbs. When writing of Virginia’s natural bounty in 1607, for instance, Captain Gabriel Archer particularly mentioned seeing “apothecary drugs of divers sorts, some known to be of good estimation, some strange, of whose virtue the savages report wonders.”

People in the early 1600s did not understand germ theory or other advanced medicine. So roasted onion placed in the ear would treat an earache. Wormwood, mint, and even clay were used for stomach troubles. The professionals who mixed medicinal herbs were called apothecaries — a name derived from apotheca, meaning a place where wine, spices, and herbs were stored. In England apothecaries were originally members of London’s grocers guild, and together these tradesmen can be traced back to the Guild of Pepperers, an association formed in London in 1180. The Society of Apothecaries was incorporated by royal charter from King James I in 1617. The English who wanted to colonize North America thought new herbs would be part of the continent’s riches. The 25-year-old German physician and botanist Johannes Fleischer came with the first Jamestown settlers in 1607. (He was the first university-educated person in English America.) Fleischer recorded the “exotic” Virginia plants and trees in his search for materials for new medicines. He died in Jamestown in the summer of 1608, and his epitaph reads: “he surveyed what the German soil produced in terms of plants; what in America flourished, he viewed, too and thereby perished.”

This tin-glazed earthenware resembles an albarello — a 12th century Islamic vessel used to hold medicines, spices, scents, or herbs on pharmacy shelves. By the time these wares were made in the Low Countries and England in the 16th century, they were called gallipots. Tin glazing on pottery produces an opaque white ground for colorful decoration and may have developed in the Islamic world in the 9th century to allow painters to make the wares imitate Chinese porcelain. These jars are the most common form of European ceramics found in the early contexts at James Fort. Thousands of sherds of delftware drug jars have been uncovered, and one jar was found in a soldier’s personal pit, dug sometime around 1610. Some of the jars contain residues which may be identifiable through future materials analyses.