Apothecary Jars from the Batavia and Gilt Dragon

Video | Updated 2 years ago

The Batavia wreck site produced a large collection of medical supplies used by the ship’s surgeon – one of the largest ever found from this period. Coral, an aquatic archaeology student from Texas A&M. University came to Western Australia to study the medical supplies of the Dutch wrecks Batavia and Gilt Dragon (Vergulde Draeck). Her study focused on shipboard medicine from large trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Surgeons would use apothecary jars to store various liquids and dry materials. By analyzing the glazes and clays of smaller salve pots using XRF analysis, Coral could determine if the ship companies would hire only one ceramicist or a variety to tend to the surgeon’s storage needs. The pots themselves are glazed on the inside but not on the outside. The analysis has shown that the jars studied all came from the same family, and belongs to a morphology of jar that is only found in the 17th Century, and more often discovered in ships than on land. By the time the 18th Century rolled around, all of the apothecary containers are larger majolica jars.

A variety of pharmacopeia from 17th and 18th centuries was stored in jars like the ones found at the Batavia and Gilt Dragon wrecks. Traces of contents from one majolica jar have survived from the Gilt Dragon. This jar was analyzed in the 70s and found to be red mercuric oxide, which was used for salves and plasters. No traces have survived from the smaller jars, but they would have held materials like mercury, absinthe, calcium and oil of vitriol (sulphuric acid) and other supplies used to make pills and plasters.

The surgeon was a key crewmember on any ship as disease was often rife in these tightly packed communities of people, and accident and injury were common. The jars found on the Batavia show us that ship companies such as the Dutch East India Company were careful to ensure that their ship surgeon’s had everything they needed to care for the health of the crew.


Interviewer: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?,

Coral: Sure, I'm a 25 year old Nautical Archaeology student from Texas A&M University in the US and I'm actually here at the Western Australian Museum studing the medical supplies from the Dutch Shipwrecks Batavia and Gilt Dragon.

Interviewer: So what brings you over to Western Australia?

Coral: My interest is actually in ship board medicine, particularly in the large trading companies in the 17th and 18th centuries. So I came here to work on the Dutch shipwrecks that are housed at the Western Australian Museum.

Interviewer: Have you found anything particularly interesting about the surgeons of this period from your work here?

Coral: From my work, yes I have actually. Some of the more interesting things we have are the apothecary jars that I have been working on analysing here. And some of things that we've been doing actually is analysing the types of glaze that were used for them. This small type of apothecary pot is called a salf pot, or salve pot. And these generally held all the liquid and some of the dry materials that the surgeons used for their apothecary role, and their glazed inside, but not outside, so we've been trying to determine what type of glaze was used on these, versus these large, ornate majolica wares and so I've been doing lots of XRF analysis on both the clay types and the glaze types to determine if they all came from the same potter, so if the company hired just one ceramics potter that they used to supply all their earthen ware, or if they came from different institutions and so far it actually looks like that they are pretty much a complete family, and they all have the same composition of glaze. Now one of the interesting things about this particular type morphology of jar is that they only exist in the 17th century and they are more likely found on ships than on land. By the time the 18th century rolls around we have wrecks like Gilt Dragon, the apothecary are all these alberelli, these glazed majolica jars. So they're kind of definitely vestigial at this point as well.

Interviewer: And, have you determined what type of materials were held in this jar?

Coral: Yes we have a number of pharmacopeia from the 17th and 18th centuries that dictate the types of medicines that ship surgeons were supposed to have in their stores. Only the contents of one of the larger magelica jars survived for us to be able to analyse and that was done back in the '70s. It turned out to be red mercuric oxide which is a common composition for salves and plasters that were used to by ship surgeons there aren't any trace analyses left in the smaller jars to be able determine what was once in them but they would have held things like mercury, absinthe, calcium or oil of vitriol, just things that were used for larger compounds that surgeons made into pills and plasters for patients for the ships.

Interviewer: And these jars that you have here, which shipwrecks have they been retrieved from?

Coral: These are actually all from Batavia, these smaller ones that we have. Gilt Dragon has a couple of the larger magelica ones, but this particular type are all from Batavia. I would probably say that it actually has the largest collection of any recorded shipwreck of this particular type of apothecary jar since it falls out use after the 17th century. So it's actually a very unique shipwreck in that sense and it probably has one of the largest medical collections, other than Mary Rose.