Painted on one side of a Portuguese tin-glazed apothecary jar in Jamestown Settlement’s museum collection is a large rabbit depicted in mid-hop. This rabbit motif copies a theme that was popularly used on Chinese porcelain from the 1640s to the 1660s.
Chinese porcelain was highly desired by 17th-century European consumers because it could be produced in a variety of thin, translucent forms and the white body provided a neutral ground for a palette of painted decoration. Jamestown Settlement’s Portuguese jar is not porcelain as true porcelain was not produced in Europe until the essential ingredient, kaolin, became widely available in the 18th century—it was a well-kept Chinese secret! But the Portuguese and other Europeans discovered that they could meet consumer demand for the expensive, exotic ware by emulating its appearance with earthenware covered in an opaque white tin glaze. This ware is variously known as delftware, faience and majolica.
Jamestown Settlement’s apothecary jar is painted in a new style of decoration used by Portuguese potters beginning about 1640. Called desenho miúdo (fine draw), the technique added manganese-colored outlines to cobalt blue chinoiserie (Chinese style) motifs. Portuguese chinoiserie was not very popular in England as potters in that country were producing their own tin-glazed earthenware copies of Chinese porcelain. In the English colony of Jamestown, however, numerous Portuguese vessels inspired by Chinese designs have been found in archaeological contexts dating to the second and third quarters of the 17th century. This unusual pattern is thought to be the result of Dutch merchants who, during that period, heavily traded with Virginia planters for tobacco in exchange for a whole range of household and luxury goods.
For most of us in western society, rabbits are associated with spring and accompany flowering plants, budding trees and birds in song as warmer days awaken the earth from her wintery slumber. Rabbits are also associated with fertility for their rapid rate of reproduction, which is necessary for the survival of their species since baby rabbits in the wild rarely survive beyond two or three months. For the Chinese, however, the rabbit is traditionally a symbol of immortality. In a sense, the two philosophies are not too distant as spring is a time of rebirth.
In Chinese legend, the rabbit lives on the moon where it produces the medicine of immortality by grinding special herbs with a mortar and pestle. The rabbit design, therefore is especially appropriate for a jar used to contain medicinal substances to preserve life even though most of the apothecary jars found on Virginia’s 17th-century sites are not so highly decorated.
The cylindrical apothecary jar form is believed to have developed from use in the 12th century of the hollow sections of bamboo stalks to store and ship pharmaceutical substances from East Asia to the Middle East. Bamboo is not native to the Middle East, so medicine jars in that area were instead made of non-porous tin-glazed earthenware, copying the general shape of the bamboo containers. Traders spread this tradition to Spain and Italy where the form became known as an albarello, seemingly derived from elbarani, the Arabic word for bamboo. A cylindrical vessel with a slightly everted rim, the albarello has a constricted neck and base that reflects the intermodal sections of bamboo. The vessel was sealed by tying parchment or leather over the opening.
The albarello/apothecary jar is one of the most common ceramic forms found archaeologically in early Jamestown contexts. While some contain residues (which may be identifiable through future materials analyses) others appear to have been shipped to the colony as empty containers. This reflects not only the colony’s need for drugs to treat the settlers’ wounds and illnesses, but also the Virginia Company’s emphasis on finding new and/or proven medicinal substances in the New World. 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.”
Next time you get a plastic pill bottle from your pharmacist, think about the influences shaping the modern container that came centuries before: the sections of bamboo that shipped drugs from the Orient, the cylindrical albarelli standing side-by-side on the shelves of ancient Persian pharmacies (just like the bottles in your medicine cabinet), and the colorful drug jars used to collect and store medicines from England’s first successful transatlantic colony. In many ways we have returned to where it all began—undecorated and strictly utilitarian containers for our medications.
The pharmaceutical jar with the rabbit motif is on exhibit in the Jamestown Settlement permanent exhibition galleries.
Bly Straube Ph.D., FSA
Senior Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
• Tânia Manuel Casimiro, Mário Varela Gomes, and Rosa Varela Gomes (2015) “Portuguese Faience trade and consumption across the world (16th–18th centuries),” Global Pottery 1. Historical Archaeology and Archaeometry for Societies in Contact, Jaume Buxeda I Garrigós et al., (eds.) BAR Iinternational Series 2761, pp. 67-79.
• David Harris Cohen and Catherine Hess (1993) Looking at European Ceramics: A Guide to Technical Terms. J. Paul Getty Museum in association with British Museum Press.
• Stephen Pendry (1999) “Portuguese Tin-Glazed Earthenware in 17th-Century New England: A Preliminary Study,” Historical Archaeology 33:4.
• Beverly Straube (2001) “European Ceramics in the New World,” Ceramics in America 2001, Robert Hunter (ed.). Milwaukee, WI: Chipstone Foundation, pp. 47-71.
• Eva Ströber (2011) Symbols on Chinese Porcelain: 10,000 Times Happiness. Arnoldsche Art Publishers.