Pottery Finds From The 1985 Atocha Excavation
Insights on the Olive Jar

By Mitchell W. Marken

BY 1622 Spain had developed a monopoly on New World trade that had far-reaching social and economic effects. Building, fitting, and supplying the fleets was big business. From such a grand enterprise, Spain was deter­mined to keep at hand as much of the profits as possible. As In­dian slaves toiled in the mines of the rich New World, crafts­men and laborers under con­tract to the Casa de Contraction (House of Trade) kept the flow of goods and supplies mov­ing at a rapid pace.

Mass production of goods, made to specifications set by the Casa were the lifeblood of the fleets. From father to son, generation after generation, trades were passed on.

When a ship such as the Nuestra Senora de Atocha is excavated, it revives with her the technology, tradition, and personalities of hundreds who worked all of their lives to help finance and maintain an em­pire.

When that ship is found,

after its centuries of resting on the seabed, you have given a part of history another chance to live.

Mitch Marken explains to visitors in the lab
something about the large coarseware utilitarian jars recovered from the lower hull struction.
(Photo by Scott Nierling, Treasure Salvors, Inc. ©1986)

History in Clay

The pottery finds from the Atocha represent more than just thousands of broken pieces of clay.

Careful, systematic study is providing fascinating insights about life at sea in the Seventeenth Century, and an in-depth look at one of man’s oldest crafts. As expected with the discovery of the lower hull section of a Spanish galleon, the Atocha has revealed an enormous number of ceramic sherds from some of the hun­dreds of pots used to store sup­plies necessary for the long transatlantic voyage.

Drawing by Mitchell W. Marken © 1986

The most common type of pottery now being recovered are the amphora-like vessels known as “olive jars,” or the “five gallon drums” of early Spanish exploration and con­quest. First identified by Holmes in 1903, and later stud­ied by John Goggin in the 1950s as part of an analysis of New World majolica (tinglazed pottery), this ceramic type has received comparatively little archaeological attention in


spite of its abundance and im­portance to New World and colonial history. Several of the food supplies needed for surviving the Atlantic crossing were stored in these containers and the Atocha is revealing an excellent assemblage, as well as a look at the techniques and attitudes of their creators.

Due to the vast area of scat­tered wreckage, and the ex­treme dynamic forces of the environment, relatively few pieces have survived intact. The pieces that are whole, and those reconstructed, reflect the unique qualities of a securely-dated shipwreck, which allow archaeologists to formulate reliable frameworks for comparative studies.

In addition to the typological information gained from the intact vessels, the large collection of sherds is answering questions about construction and manufacturing techniques that have eluded archaeologists for decades. Fingerprints, handprints, scratches, and stamped markings so trivial and simple 363 years ago are today’s levers used to pry information from a time and trade long forgotten.

Drawing by Mitchell W. Marken © 1986

Olive Jars

The body sherd sample 2,318), neck sample (126), bas­al sample (108), and rim sample (108), are helping to answer some of the questions of “olive jar” construction technique. The reconstructed “olive jar”, which took several hours to reassemble, once took a potter only a few minutes to create. An intact jar, with some rim, basal, and body sherds, were taken to the Florida Keys Community College in Key West, Florida, for examination by the pottery department.

Could a modern potter throw an identical pot in the same fashion? There is little doubt that the “olive jars” were turned on a wheel and fired in a kiln, Characteristic turning marks, finger impressions, and general form make this quite evident.

Evidence suggests that the jars were thrown upside-down, in one piece, then inverted while the rim was then added to the neck. In the Atocha collection there are no apparent shoulder joins that would indicate the jars being made from two separate pieces, a common method a potter would use to­day.

Drawing by Mitchell W. Marken © 1986

Of the 108 “olive jar” rims recovered, 10 examples have incised or stamped markings. Today little is known about the markings, although they have appeared on jars from contem­poraneous shipwrecks. A mark

“D” found on Atocha samples was recovered from the San Antonio wrecked 1621 in Bermuda, and an introductory study by John Goggin illustrates a Middle Style” rim mark very similar to the “$” example found on the Atocha. Rim markings seem to occur during this small time period, as markings are not found on any of the Spanish Armada (1588) olive jar rims or in the collections of the Tolosa and Guadafupe wrecked in 1724 in the Dominican Republic.


From initials to oriental designs, the reason for the marks, and why they only appear on wrecks in the first half of the Seventeenth Century, remains a mystery.

The manufacturing tech­nique of the neck and rim sec­tions is still not clear at this time. The following technique is suggested: due to the lack of finger turning marks on the upper portion of the neck exterior (they do occur on the inte­rior supporting the upside down throwing technique), it is believed the vessel was removed from the wheel, and turned right side up. There are some examples with a small “scar” around the exterior base that may have been caused from being placed upright in a “chuck,” or donut-shaped holder, for support to complete the top half of the jar once inverted. The exterior waste around the shoulders and neck was

lip for the mouth was formed. This may have occured after a few hours of sun drying at the leather hard stage. There was no firm evidence to support the theory that the rims were also formed on a wheel. On several of the examples join marks are visible on the interior of the mouth and under the rim on the exterior connecting the neck. These finds indicate that the rims themselves were added and connected to the existing mouth.

Means of manufacture may include rolling a cylinder of clay, then wrapping it around the mouth. There is evidence of smoothing the interior of the mouth with a finger while turning, thus completing the join. The exterior rim appears to have been braced during the fusion of the interior mouth to the rim, possibly with the palm of the potter’s hand, as little at­tention was paid to the join between the exterior neck and lower portion of the rim.

The general shape of the mouth, a sloping “V”, indicates manufacture specifically for insertion of a cork. The 12 rims with corks still in place and neck/rim sherds support this hypothesis. Individual stylistic variations in rim shaping on jars differ substantially, making the rim to vessel form relationship difficult to specify. Our modern potter could help with some of the answers, but to throw a similar piece of the

Drawing by Mitchell W. Marken © 1986

same size was a difficult exercise.


The Atocha “olive jar” material appears made predominantly from coarse paste, with numerous inclusions, and in several cases poorly prepared. Body sherds are between .7 and 1.2 cm thick. The paste itself shows evidence of firing reduction, with oxidation on the exterior and interior. The pieces appeared to be wood fired at a low temperature of about 1800-1900 degrees F. In the Armada collections and the Tolosa and Guadalupe, several of the Samples had a green to light green glaze on the interior of the vessels. There is no indication of glaze on any of the Atocha’s olive jar material. Three samples from the Atocha collections were sent along with three samples recovered from wrecks of the Spanish Armada, to the geology department of the University of California, Berkeley, for an X-ray diffraction analy­sis for mineralogical composition.

The samples were prepared as follows. Each of the samples was pulverized and suspended in water. The suspensions were then settled onto glass slides and air dried. This technique should separate the clays over the denser materials such as quartz.... quartz predominates in all samples. And in one sample clay is completely absent. Atocha samples are not mineralogically distinguishable from Armada samples, nor is there any characteristic similarity between the two sets.

Although the diffraction analysis may aid in the mineralogical composition, for paste origin tests, the use of X-ray fluorescence (XRF) may prove more helpful.

It is hoped that further test­ing of comparative shipwreck ceramics will aid in the search for manufacturing centers in southern Spain and the New World.

Other Types

Along with the large sample
of "olive jar” type material, 80 sherds from large, flat-bottomed vessels of coarse red-orange colored paste with numerous micaceous inclusions suggest another type of ceramic storage container. The sample consists almost entirely of basal pieces, and round “disc” bottoms. Evidence of pitch on the vessel bottoms looks simi­lar to the pitch found in the olive jar sample. At this point no neck or rim sherds have been identified. General appearance and paste texture are similar to botija type wares also common in the Seventeenth Century. Manufacture of these vessels, which all have similar dimensions, appear to be wheel thrown, using the flattened “disc” as a base placed on the wheel head. The possibility exists, although not substantiated by evidence in this collection, that the basal pieces may be a kind of flat-bottomed “olive jar” type vessel observed by Bermudian diver Teddy Tucker, with variations of the jar form present in the collections of the Tolosa and Guada­lupe. The overall size of the sherds suggest a vessel prob­ably used for storage, as the presence in the lower hull portion of the wreck deposit would indicate.

The collection from the 1985 season also includes a unique, thick, burnt, red umber-colored ware, which is made from a coarse, gritty paste with numerous large quartz inclu­sions. The interior and exterior walls are well smoothed, with some evidence of tooling marks on the interior vessel.

Its crude manufacture and paste characteristics, so dissimilar from any other Old World pottery type, would suggest a New World origin. The author has identified similar pieces from earlier Spanish wrecks in Bermuda, whereas there were no examples of this type in the Armada collection, supporting the theory of Indian manufacture. The 95 sherds are being reconstructed, and at this time there appear to be the remains of at least two different containers present. Three sherds contain the molded im­pression of a face on the exterior vessel wall, also indicative of meso-American origin.

Other common pottery wares in the collection such as blue-on-blue majolica and other tin-glazed pieces are not as abundant as the storage containers. Very few sherds have been recovered of these types with the notable exception of one intact handled, narrow-mouthed container, well-smoothed, of a fine paste, which has not been iden­tified or seen on any other Spanish wreck. A decorated majolica bowl which has been partially reconstructed may have been used by a wealthy passenger as an imitation porcelain rice bowl. Another majolica piece, a small blue-on-white, four-legged decorated tray, is thought to be a type of salt dipping dish. Fragments of common table wares uncovered in the lower hull section would not be expected, although other finds include five tin-glazed handles, two basal pieces most likely from the common “escudub” type bowl, two neck! shoulder pieces from small pitchers, two plate rim sherds, and a complete basal section of a smooth paste container.

Ceramic Distribution

The distribution of ceramic types along the wreckage “trail” is helping to create patterns useful in identifying dif­ferent sections of shipwrecks through pottery finds.
When people of Treasure Salvors, Inc., first uncovered the stern portion of the Atocha, a predominance of majolica sherds, and a lack of huge quantities of “olive jar” material supported the conclusions that the lower hull section was absent.
Because the life expectancy of ceramic wares is much shorter than other shipboard items, especially cannon, the use of ceramics becomes a valuable tool in dating, and evaluating shipwrecks. The “time capsule” attributes of shipwrecks have broad applications for use in land archaeology.
Using precise dating references for comparative studies, such as the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, archaeologists can create a more com­plete and accurate picture of history.

Mitch Marken is a maritime archaeologist doing graduate research on Spanish shipwreck ceramics toward a Ph.D degree, supervised by Colin Martin at the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies, University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

Reprinted with permission from Seafarers,
 Journal Of Maritime Heritage Volume 1

An Official Publication of The Atlantic Alliance For Maritime Heritage Conservation
PO Box 1528
Key West, Florida 33041-1528



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