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"Tortugas"  Olive Jars

The excavation of the “Tortugas” shipwreck yielded 86 intact olive jars (Botijas) plus 123 individual rims and 3,503 sherds.


The ship was thus transporting a minimum of 209 olive jars that were relatively evenly distributed across the site. The descriptive term ‘olive jar’ is a misnomer because these vessels were packaged with a wide variety of liquid and solid foodstuffs, however, ‘olive jar’ has become a generic name for this ceramic form today.

The majority of the "Tortugas" olive jars adhere to the generic Middle Style A form while the collection also includes seven small globular jars defined as Middle Style B form, as well as two small carrot-shaped jars classified as Middle Style C. Two intact flat-bottomed large vessels are also represented within the assemblage.

Graffito incisions present on either the shoulder or rim of some jars appear to have been made, with one exception, prior to firing. One example is incised with a Jerusalem cross on the shoulder, while another displays a post-firing pecked design on the shoulder. Motifs were impressed into the wet clay on the mouths of some jars. Several are identical to marks present amongst the Atocha olive jar assemblage. Small parallel cuts on and near the rims may be the result of vessel reuse or less probably rodent gnawing.

The volume of botijas on the “Tortugas” wreck is relatively limited and suggests the jars did not serve as cargo. Rather, colonial Spain pursued a policy of stocking all ships with sufficient supplies for entire journeys to the Americas and home. Eight months of food and four months of water were loaded in Seville. Ships often returned with surplus foods, although stocks were commonly replenished at Havana. Botijas of all sizes were used for storing a multitude of foodstuffs: wine, oil, vinegar, honey, as well as solids such as rice, almonds, hazelnuts, raisins, capers and olives. Although recovered from the ROV’s SeRF system, and not from jar interiors, it is likely that many of the seeds and pits from almonds, plums, peaches, olives, hazelnut and grape from the "Tortugas" shipwreck were originally botija contents.

The interior lining of a few olive jar sherds was coated with a chalky red stain, which has been interpreted by visual observation alone possibly as red ocher, a product listed amongst ships provisions for carpenters. Alternatively, it may constitute cochineal listed as cargo on ships returning to Europe from the Indies.

During the ship’s descent onto the seafloor, or soon after deposition, the pressure exerted on the olive jars forced their cork seals to implode inwards: 72 intact and fragmentary cork stoppers were found inside some vessels. Resin was detected within some jar interiors demonstrating sealant by coating the edges of conical shaped corks with pitch.

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