Roman jar filled with holes perplexes experts

An ancient Roman jar of mysterious origin and even more mysterious function has stumped experts. It was discovered broken in 180 pieces in the storage room of the Museum of Ontario Archaeology, and was recently painstakingly put back together. Once the vessel was whole again, researchers were surprised to find that it is riddled with holes all over the sides and even one on the bottom.

The museum has contacted experts in Roman pottery asking if they’re familiar with this form, but nobody has seen another example. Speculation is rife as to how the jar might have been used.

“There are a lot of different options, a lot of them involving either a lamp or some sort of animal container,” [Museum of Ontario Archaeology researcher Katie] Urban said, adding that while the tiny holes would’ve allowed light to pass through the object, the hole at its bottom suggests it wasn’t a lamp.

Another possibility is that the jar was used to store dormice, rodents found throughout Europe; ancient texts suggest the mice were a popular snack for Romans. […]

Urban said the problem with this theory is that dormice jars from elsewhere in the Roman world look different from this vessel. The rodent jars were equipped with a ramp that mice could run along and use to help store food within the holes.

Yet another idea is that the jar held snakes, ones too big to slither out through its holes. Snakes were a popular religious symbol throughout the ancient world.

If we knew more about its archaeological context, we might be able to plug the holes, to coin a phrase. Unfortunately, we don’t know where the sherds were found. Museum records suggest the collection of broken jar pieces was donated to the museum by pioneering Welsh archaeologist William Francis Grimes, director of the Museum of London and the University College London’s Institute of Archaeology, in the 1950s. Grimes is most famous for having unearthed the London Mithraeum in 1954 while surveying a bomb site in central London, but the Museum of Ontario Archaeology has no indication that the jar was found on that famous dig.

Since the inventory of Grimes’ gifts to the museum is incomplete, it’s possible that the jar isn’t even from Roman Britain, but rather from Ur. The British Museum gave a collection of artifacts from Leonard Woolley’s excavation of the royal burials at Ur to the Ontario museum in 1933. This is unlikely, however, so the museum’s working assumption is that the holy jar is Roman.

I think it looks a little like one of those pots used to grow strawberries. Those have holes in the bottom for drainage and in the sides for the plants to grow out of. The holes look too small for that use, though.

29 thoughts on “Roman jar filled with holes perplexes experts

  1. Perhaps it was used to store something kept underwater, such as eels or fish? The hole at the bottom would make it easier to pull the jar out of the water.

    1. It’s only 16 inches tall, so whatever heat source placed inside would have been fairly small. Glowing coals, maybe? The hole in the bottom might have been a little too incendiary, though.

  2. Or, perhaps it was used by scientists to preserve the skeletons of small animals. For instance, put a small, dead animal such as a bird in it, then small scavangers could eat at the flesh, but larger ones could not take off with any of the bones. In time, you would have a full skeleton without anyting missing.

  3. Stand it in a larger vessel, such as a trough or cistern.
    Line the pierced vessel with a cloth bag, open at the top.
    Pour dirty water containing sediment or rotifers or algae into the top — filtered water flows out through the holes.

  4. It reminds me of a strawberry planter we used to have in our backyard. Also explains the drainage hole in the bottom.

  5. Could it be that the holes we once filled with some material used as decoration that was either later stolen (like jewels) or rotted away with time (like wood).

    1. I don’t think so, but that’s just a gut reaction, not based on any data. I think it’s too rustic a vessel to have been festooned with gems, and drilling holes in a jar that you then block with wood seems like a poor storage system.

  6. So what do you think? I don’t see that you have left any comments on what you think it was used for.
    I don’t know why, but this has ME thinking day and night.

    1. I mentioned in the entry that it reminds me of a strawberry pot, but it could be anything, really. The idea of it being used underwater appeals to me, both because that mosaic rogue classicist found looks very much on point and because Britain as an island has always had a variety of maritime industries.

  7. In Spain you can find similar pots used for storage of garlic and onions. They should not get light, but they rot if not aireated. XVI century models are similar to nowadays and they could go much backwards in time.

  8. 😉 I agree it is a fishing vessel like for cathing minnows or octopus,or maybe a live bait bucket they would use during fishing.Many things come to mine.I cannot wait to see what you discover with it finally. 😉

  9. It could be an octopus trap. But I think it’s a container for fragrant substances – a large room deodorant such as we have now, although modern ones are much smaller. Now what would they have used as the source of fragrance?

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  11. I have something similar (made of plastic, however) in my kitchen. I call it a “collander” and use it to drain the water from cooked vegetables.

  12. My theory is that since it may be from Ur that cosmology was a part of the culture. Has anyone tried to place the jar over a light torch and see where the pinpoints of light are in a large room? I would like to see it done to eliminate the possibility of constellations or prove that it is a part of cosmology in the religion of the day.

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