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Olive Jar

Place Made:
Seville Spain
Date Made:
HOA: 11″; WOA: 10″ DOA;10″
Accession Number:
Though early seventeenth century Virginia was literally at the edge of the emerging English empire, archeology reveals that it was still enmeshed in global trade networks. Ceramics from across Europe and China have all been recovered from seventeenth century Virginia sites

This olive jar was found at the Maine, a settlement on Governor’s Land outside of Jamestown. In 1618 the Virginia Company instructed Governor George Yeardley to set aside 3,000 acres of land near the capital at Jamestown “to be the seat and land of the Governor of Virginia.” This land was to be farmed by tenants and provide income and support to the Governor and the Virginia Company. The tenant was generally entitled to half the fruits of their labor with the Governor and the Virginia Company splitting the remainder. The artefactual and historical record suggests that the site excavated at the Maine was inhabited for a single tenancy, from about 1618 to 1625. The 1624/5 Muster counts thirty-five inhabitants at the Maine: 29 men and 6 women.

Olive jars like this one were made in great numbers in Spain during the 15th and 16th centuries. They were called “botijas peruleras”—“Jars of the New World”—in Spanish records. Their thickly and quickly potted walls made them cheap; their ovoid shape made them well suited for the curving walls of a ships hold where they could be packed tightly together. The name “olive jar” was coined by archeologists in the early 20th century. In reality they held a wide range of goods. According to archeologist Beverly Straube, “oil, wine, water, pitch, turpentine, vinegar, honey, rice, beans, capers, chick peas, almonds, and even lead bullets are documented as having been shipped in these earthen vessels.” This particular style of olive jar was most often used for shipping oil. Oil was an important part of the diet of early Virginians. High in fat and calories, imported oil was most often used to dress greens.

According to Straube, olive jars found in Virginia contexts are thought to have been made in the Triana neighborhood of Seville.

REFERENCES: Alain Charles Outlaw, “Governor’s Land: Archeology of Early Seventeenth-Century Virginia Settlements” (Charlottesville, Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 1990)

William M. Kelso, Nicholas M. Luccketti, and Beverly A. Straube, “Jamestown Rediscovery V” (Richmond, Virginia: Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1999)

Excavated at The Maine settlement site on Governor’s Land outside of Jamestown, Virginia, between 1976-1977 by Alain Charles Outlaw and the Virginia Research Center for Archeology, a branch of the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission.
Credit Line:
Loan courtesy of Department of Historic Resources of the Commonwealth of Virginia