From the Depths: Who threw this olive jar overboard?
When you step into the Masset Maritime Museum in Haida Gwaii, you see large-scale models of sailing ships, walls covered in nets, and exhibits of Pacific Ocean fishing and sea-faring life. There are cedar canoes and displays about the wooden-boat industry. Easily overlooked among the pretty glass fishing floats and shiny crab-canning machines is a modest glass case enclosing an 18th-century earthenware Spanish olive jar.
According to lawyer Tom Beasley, whose hobbies include maritime history and underwater archaeology, this jar is the oldest known non-aboriginal artifact in British Columbia.
“In about 1986,” Beasley says, “I wrote a letter to the editor of Westcoast Mariner, asking if any mariners or fishermen had dragged up pots in their nets.” At the time, Beasley was researching early Chinese exploration on BC’s west coast and was interested in ancient Chinese pots that had been dragged up from the deeps off Tofino.
Beasley’s appeal resulted in a call from a fisherman. In the summer of 1987, Noel Stewart-Burton and crew were seining for salmon on the east coast of Langara Island, five hours by sea from the village of Masset. In their nets, from a depth of eight to 10 fathoms (15-18 metres), they had pulled a large, red-coloured earthenware jar about 75 cm by 40 cm in size.
A significant find The fisherman sent Beasley a photo and a small piece of the jar that had broken off. The fragment went from the Underwater Archaeological Society of BC (UASBC) in Vancouver to the archaeology labs at Simon Fraser University. There, David Huntley put the shard through a dating process known as thermoluminescence and determined the jar was made sometime between 1720 and 1790. Its distinctive shape, size, colour and material make-up helped them identify it as Spanish in origin.
“The jar,” wrote Beasley (with Hector Williams, David Huntley and William Newton) in a 1993 BC Studies article, “is remarkably asymmetrical and seems to have been built up from separate sections that were thrown on the potter’s wheel and then put together.” Experts say the clay jar was a universal container—the 18th century Spanish version of Rubbermaid bins—used for holding and transporting olive oil, wine, olives, figs, pickles, and even tar and soap.
Beasley said that the jar was a very significant find, and warranted an expedition to dive the site to determine if there were other artifacts or possibly a shipwreck lying beneath the sea nearby.
Beasley and two other UASBC members—underwater photographer Mike Paris and UBC Professor of Mediterranean Archaeology Hector Williams—went to the site in 1990 to investigate. The team members were all divers. Williams, the academic of the group and one of the few professional underwater archaeologists then in the area, explains that when the Masset fishermen pulled up the jar they had taken a bearing from a dead tree onshore, so the team was able to return to the location of the discovery.
But they found nothing there. Beasley et al wrote in BC Studies that, “no further remains were discovered. The bottom area suitable for seining is relatively limited, as over much of the sea-bed there are large boulders. There is, however, a broad sandy stretch that possibly yielded the object. It may have been an accident of wave or current that exposed the toe or the broken upper end of the jar sufficiently to catch in the net as it dragged across the ocean floor.”
But how did it get there? Williams explains that a colleague working in Spanish archives discovered that there had been a Spanish ship near the northern end of Haida Gwaii during the date range of the discovered olive jar. Beasley furthers that the Spanish explorer Juan Perez had anchored in 1774 about a kilometre from where the jar was found. “Juan Perez on Santiago sighted land but was unable to put ashore because of adverse weather,” says the BC Studies article, but that some Haida paddled out to the Santiago and traded furs and other products for metal, trinkets, and old clothing. “In 1792, the Spanish returned under Jacinto Camaaño and erected a wooden cross more than six metres high at the north end of Graham Island across from Langara Island and close to the find spot of the jar.”
Beasley and Williams can only guess how the jar came to be at the bottom of the Pacific, but admit that it is unlikely an unknown Spanish shipwreck awaits discovery in the area. More likely, the emptied or broken jar was thrown overboard from a Spanish ship as it passed or was anchored nearby. Also possible is that a non-Spanish vessel threw it out, or that the jar found its way into Haida hands and they jettisoned it themselves. Or it could have been moved by ocean currents over a long distance and deposited in the sands, only to be exposed in 1986 enough to snag in Noel Stewart-Burton’s fishing nets.
Williams says the olive jar at the Masset Maritime Museum is significant as it is the only known Spanish artifact found in the waters off BC and it offers a rare bit of evidence of the brief Spanish colonial presence on our shores. “But,” says Beasley, “there are undoubtedly other similar and possibly older olive jars and pots elsewhere on the coast, as well as unknown pre-European-settlement shipwrecks waiting to be located.”