Artifacts

Chess

These bone gaming pieces are almost certainly chess pieces. They have been found throughout the James Fort site in several rubbish pits. These particular pieces would have been manufactured by craftsmen in Europe. While it’s impossible to be sure what these two pieces were meant to represent, it does look like one may be a bishop. (While Europeans gave chess pieces their current names, the game itself originated somewhere in Asia centuries before making its way into European cultures. Numerous bone and ivory chess pieces have been found throughout Europe in archaeological contexts dating as old as a thousand years ago.)

To date nine chess pieces have been found by the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. One ivory chess piece was found looking little the worse for wear after having spent 400 years in an early well near James Fort’s north bulwark. (Artifacts pulled from below the depth at which the ground is completely saturated with water were wonderfully preserved in the wet conditions.) The presence of gaming pieces at James Fort could relate to colonist leisure activities, but there is also the possibility the decorative objects had been brought across the Atlantic as potential items for trade with the Virginia Indians.

Crucifix

Jamestown was founded during the imperial conflict between Roman Catholic Spain and Protestant England. Fear of Spanish spies grew strong in the harsh and heated living conditions at James Fort. Crucifixes such as this one prove Catholics were among the settlers from the very start — and one of them became the first person executed in Virginia.

Two decades of open warfare between Catholic Spain and Protestant England were settled in a 1604 treaty. But religious tensions still simmered as the two nations maneuvered to see who would control North America. Spain’s King Philip III believed the Jamestown settlement was illegal and kept a close eye on it.

Ear Pick

A Jamestown colonist used this beautiful dolphin to scrape scale from teeth, clean dirt from fingernails, and scoop out earwax. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, gold and silver toiletry tools were fashionable dress accessories in Europe. This earpick belonged to someone of high status who would have worn it openly to display that high standing (the loop meant it could be hung around the neck or from a belt, as jewelry).

But earpicks and toothpicks were also frequently made of bone, ivory, and brass as purely utilitarian objects. Ear pickers were used by all levels of society in medieval and post-medieval England. The 17th-century English knew about plaque, which they called “scale” or “surf,” and they were encouraged by their doctors to scrape their teeth frequently. They also knew that a buildup of earwax could cause deafness.

The first settlers to Jamestown in 1607 included two men who could perform basic medical care. John Smith’s list of the settlers names Thomas Wotton as a “surgeon” and Thomas Couper as a barber (who did many of the same medical things a surgeon would do, from tooth removal to bloodletting). London surgeon John Woodall sent a fully furnished surgeon’s chest to Jamestown in 1609 and mentioned “eare-pickers” as part of the surgeon’s necessary “bundle of small instruments usually brought from Germanie.” Beyond everyday personal healthcare, these tools were also needed to treat sudden ailments, such as “a stone in the eare.”

The scoop found at Jamestown could also help with a valuable job at the fort. A tailor normally used beeswax to coat thread to make it stronger and easier to use, but with no bees available, earwax would do. As gross as that may seem to us today, earwax was worth saving in the harsh early days of James Fort.

Cup

Less than two inches tall, this diminutive Chinese porcelain vessel with “flame frieze” decoration is known as a wine cup. Several of these vessels have been found during the archaeological excavations of James Fort where they had been probably used by the colony’s gentlemen to drink their distilled spirits (aqua vitae).

Made in Jingdezhen, China, these fine cups were once thought to be Imperial ware, reserved for use by the Chinese elite. Now they are recognized as vessels made for export as they have been found on a number of Dutch shipwrecks and terrestrial sites dating to the first half of the 17th century. This cup was found in a circa 1610 part of James Fort — earlier than finds of such wine cups in shipwrecks off the west coast of Africa (1613) or the South China Sea (1640s). These porcelain wine cups were rare and expensive objects and served as status indicators for upper class Europeans. Three of the flame frieze cups were even included in a curiosity cabinet assembled for King Gustavus Adolphus II of Sweden!

Child's Shoe

A few shoes and other leather artifacts have been found in the wet anaerobic (without oxygen) environments of James Fort’s wells. In 2006 fragments of a child’s first shoe were found in a timber-lined well filled with trash ca. 1617. The goatskin shoe was a “draw-bridge” style that came into fashion about 1600. The size 1 shoe showed signs of slight wear, perhaps from the infant’s first steps on Virginia soil. This shoe was a prestige item and reflects the status of the infant’s parents. It is also one of the rare objects found during the archaeological search of the fort that represents children. It is from such details that we may develop the narrative about people and events that had been lost to history.

This find is all the more rare because shoes were in short supply in the early Jamestown colony for everyone. Captain John Smith blamed this on sailors who would pilfer supplies meant for the colonists and then sell them in a black market — sometimes even to the colonists themselves! Smith reported that it was particularly hard to harvest oysters without proper footwear. He recalled that “for want of Shooes among the Oyster Bankes wee tore our hatts and Clothes and those being worne, wee tied Barkes of trees about our Feete to keepe them from being Cutt by the shelles amongst which wee must goe or starve.“

Click on the links to continue your exploration of artifacts from the Jamestown Colony

Click on the links to continue your exploration of artifacts from the Jamestown Colony