Thursday, October 24, 2013

Early, Middle, Late Olive Jar.
Day 2: Unglazed coarse earthenware (Part 2: Olive Jars)

Olive jars are commonly found on archaeological sites going back to the 16th century.  They were the primary container used for shipping.  Due to deforestation many societies ran out of materials for containers, thus they made ceramic ones.  In America and Spain hundreds of thousands of olive jars were used for storing water and transport.  When the jars got to their destination they were often repurposed for storage.  Some other notable examples of repurposing include Mexican cathedral walls made of olive jars stacked side by side.  This happened here in St. Augustine, as well as any kind of arching or whole patios.

Archaeologically we find three varieties of olive jar: Early, Middle, and Late.  Main way to tell one from another is rim type and body shape.  Modeled on classical amphorae, Early olive jars were used around the Mediterranean in 1550.  When the Spanish started shipping to America they shifted to a more bulbous shaped vessel for ease of transport.  Dr. Deagan states that no one really sure how that worked, how they didn't break.  After 1550 the Middle style, which was already around in Europe, came into prominence.  Finally in 1780, following shipping changes to America, Late form jars start showing up on archaeological sites.  Many of the jars likely originated in Seville, which as only sanctioned trade city had a formidable olive jar industry.

Left to right: Early, Middle, and Late rim types for Olive Jars.

Specimens for practice on reserve at the library (then, not now).

From our reading:
Forms of Olive Jars (Goggin 1960:28 cited in Deagan 2002:31)

Early Olive Jar forms (1490-1570)
  • Distinct rim, flanged lip
  • Coiled but smooth with not many ridges on the inside
  • Jar almost flat, could rest against the body
  • Few Early examples found in St. Augustine or North America
  • Thin, thinner5-7 mm thick
  • Smoothed over whitish look to the surface
  • Paste has flesh colored, freckled look, sand tempered
  • Freckling shows through to the surface
  • Rope more on handles for the early.

Early rim, note flanged lip.

Middle Olive Jar forms (1560-1800)
  • Large, very tall, possibly made by putting molds together
  • Rim distinctive, donut shape with inverted rim and almost a hook in cross section
  • Big coils, places where big coils were smoothed but you can still feel
Middle Olive Jar body sherd, note thickness and coils.
Middle (left) and Late (right) rim types for Olive Jars.
Late Olive Jar forms (1800-1900)
  • Very pointy, set them into racks
  • Late style, the coils are more pronounced
  • Rim looks more like a strip stuck on, not sculpted up like Early or donut like Middle
  • Rim is a ring with no indentation
  • Thickness thinner than middle 
  • Can feel more prominent coils, ridges are squared off

Late conicular Olive Jar base.

In sum, all olive jars are coarse earthenware.  For archaeologists we can't often date from body sherd alone, need rim and probably the base.  They can also be glazed, often on the inside.

Beware: not all vessels featuring this flesh, freckled paste type are olive jars!
Tricky! Intermediate Mid/Late rim.

Posers that often throw off archaeological analysts:
  • Hybrids exist, such as one example from Fountain of Youth that features body of an Early form with the rim of a Middle
  • Amphora body sherds, for example other early shipping containers found in Dominican Republic.  If rims are too wide, it's not an olive jar.
  • The French used biot storage jars, which are not considered olive jars.  
  • Sugar molds are often mistaken for olive jars but feature odd bases and tops that might throw an analyst off.  
  • Flat base is indicative of a bacin, again not an olive jar.
  • Thickness not always a help, like honey vessels are small versus water vessels which are larger.

Rim fired, NOT an olive jar.
Not an olive jar, rim too wide.
Quiz!  Can you identify Early, Middle, and Late sherds after reading this post? 

Check back next week for 3rd and last installment of Day 2: Unglazed Coarse Earthenware!

Other posts in the #ceramics101 series (will provide link as they are posted):
Week 1 - introduction
Week 2 - Unglazed and coarse earthenware: Part 1 Prehistoric; Part 2 Olive Jars; Part 3 European
Week 3 - Slipware and lead-glazed pottery
Week 4 - Majolica- Morisco tradition
Week 5 - Majolica- Italianate tradition
Week 6 - Majolica- Mexico City tradition
Week 7 - Majolica- Puebla tradition
Week 8 - Delft & Faience
Week 9 - Porcelain
Week 10 - Refined Earthenware
Week 11 - Stoneware

Text and images: Sarah Miller, FPAN staff using notes from Dr. Deagan's Fall 2012 Historic Ceramic Analysis class at Flagler College.  Please note any errors and inaccuracies are mine.  Endless thanks to Dr. Kathleen Deagan to giving her blessing to this blog project last year.  


Florida Museum of Natural History, Digital Type Collection, Historical Archaeology (

Deagan, K. A. 2002 Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean 1500-1800.Volume 1: Ceramics and Glassware.  Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press (Volume 1). (paper). 

Noel Hume, Ivor 1980 A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Knopf.

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