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The Archaeology of Jamestown

Maria Franklin
University of Texas, Austin

Most of the English colonists, Native Americans, Africans, and enslaved and free blacks who lived and interacted with one another at Jamestown did not leave behind a written record or account of any sort. Their life stories, however, do not remain silent. Despite a lack of written evidence, historians have been able to reconstruct the narrative of Jamestown through the archaeological record, tracing lived experience and memory through the material remains of the past.

Through archeological practice we can begin to uncover what sorts of daily activities took place, the particulars of diet and dress, and what living environments might have looked like. Hundreds of thousands of artifacts and ecofacts (evidence related to the environment or physical conditions of the settlement) have been recovered: architectural remains (a variety of houses, taverns, and ordinaries); structures and features related to industry (such as brick clamps for firing bricks); and evidence of landscape modifications (such as fields for planting, fence lines, and boundary trenches defining property lines).

The study of the physical remains of Jamestown through archaeological research remainsClick to See a Larger View vital to our understanding of colonial lifeways during the settlement's early period. The pipes commonly found at the Jamestown site are a fine example. Given the early emphasis on tobacco planting by Jamestown settlers and the rapid success of tobacco exportation, it should come as no surprise that one of the most frequently found Jamestown artifacts is the tobacco pipe. Although most pipes were imported from England and Holland, archaeologists have discovered an impressive number of pipes that were locally manufactured at Jamestown and other seventeenth-century sites in the Chesapeake.

Generally referred to as "Chesapeake" or "colono" pipes, these American pipes were made with the red clays underlying the tidewater region. Whether molded by hand or fashioned in pipe molds, each pipe received unique treatment in terms of design and stylistic elements that sets them apart from their European cousins. The Chesapeake pipes' most remarkable features are the rouletted, punctated, or incised designs depicting a wide range of motifs, including geometric symbols, local animals and other nature-inspired pictographs.

A number of arguments have surfaced among archaeologists to account for the creation of these pipes, which uniquely combine artistry and functionality. Some claim that local Native Americans traded these pipes with English settlers. Others believe that the Chesapeake pipe owes its creation to the social and cultural interactions of the English, Africans, and Native Americans who exchanged ideas regarding production techniques and used the pipes as a canvas to convey various ethnically-related symbols.

As we dig deeper into the remains of the settlement and uncover greater evidence, the map of the colonial world continues to expand. Archeological evidence adumbrates the picture of early colonial life both within and around Jamestown and also within a broaderAtlantic context. Spanish olive jars, for example, known as botijas Click to See a Larger Viewperuleras, or "jars of the New World," present us with yet another critical window into the physical world of Jamestown. This earthenware object is commonly known among scholars as a Spanish olive jar, but that label is misleading. Spanish merchants used these cheap and sturdy containers for transporting rice, honey, wine, turpentine, and many other commodities. Vast quantities of Spanish commodities were sent to the Americas in this type of container, and archaeologists have found evidence of them virtually everywhere the Spanish visited in their global explorations. The jars were cushioned during transit by a mesh covering. They could be stacked in a ship's curved hold more efficiently than barrels or other large containers, and were also less expensive to manufacture.

Although the jar shown here is generally associated with seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Virginia sites, various forms of Iberian storage jars have been found archaeologically dating to the late eighteenth century. The shape and form of the Spanish olive jars found at Jamestown indicate that they once held wine or oil. Documentary sources indicate that both food items were imported during the early years. How the jars came to be at the English colony at Jamestown remains a mystery. The jars could have been sent through the Virginia Company or obtained through privateering or from smugglers. However they arrived at Jamestown, the Spanish olive jars point to a range of historical questions about the map of colonial trade and the early influence of the Spanish in the colonies.

The archeological remains of Jamestown provide unique insighClick to See a Larger Viewt into the nature of colonial life. However, the physical remains constitute only a part of the picture. An understanding of the importance of archeological evidence requires the choreography of different sources, including pictorial representations and first hand accounts. For instance, Theodor de Bry's engraving of the town of Secota, based on one of the drawings by John White, the artist charged to make maps and prepare drawings of the land and its inhabitants on the 1585 Roanoke expedition, is an essential component of our understanding of the English view of Native Americans. De Bry's engraving provides a number of important clues for the historian interested in reconstructing the domestic and cultural spaces of the Powhatan.

The Powhatan houses represented in de Bry's engraving were called yihikans (yee-ha-chans) and were built primarily by the women of the tribe. The yihikan had the shape of a barrel vault, with saplings set into the ground at one-foot intervals in two parallel lines, which were then bent and lashed together. The frame was covered over with mats that women prepared from marsh reeds. Bark was sometimes used as well, but required more labor. Until iron tools were obtained from trade with the Europeans, only elite families had bark coverings on their yihikan. The only furniture consisted of lashed bedsteads along both long walls. Inside, a constant fire was maintained by the women, by which the house could be comfortably heated. In his Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles, John Smith describes the houses as "warme as stooves, but very smoaky" (Smith 31). He goes on to praise the "the drie warm smokie houses of the Kecoughtan" (Smith 75).

Such pictorial evidence and written accounts help to sketch out the structure and character of the Powhatan household, but because we have little account of what Powhatan women actually used, we must turn to archeology for a description of what was inside. Archeological evidence suggests that Powhatan pots, for example, were characterized by rounded, conical bases which were designed to be fitted among the coals for efficient heating. Other utensils found in archeological sites include basin-shaped grinding stones, stone pestles, hammer stones, and bone weaving needles used to make textiles. While textile samples have not been recovered, the impression of textiles has been preserved in some ceramic finds. Other archeological remains, including pearl, iron, and copper artifacts, enrich our stories of colonial life and culture.

Recovering the narrative of colonial history necessitates an integration of methods, bringing together the work of the historian, the literary historian, and the archeologist. The story (or stories) of this small cross-section of archeological remains and historical representations begins to yield a genealogy of colonial interaction, collaboration, and cultural encounter. Whatever the actual significance of these objects—their representation, use, and symbolic function—the physical evidence remains important to our sense of colonial history, a history that is changing, being revised, and challenged with each new dig.

Suggestions For Further Reading

Deetz, J. The Archaeology of Flowerdew Hundred. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993.

Emerson, M. C. "Decorated Clay Tobacco Pipes from the Chesapeake: An African Connection." In Historical Archaeology of the Chesapeake. Edited by P. A. Shackel and B. J. Little. District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994, 35-49.

Horning, A. J. "A Verie Fit Place to Erect a Great Cittie:" Comparative Contextual Analysis of Archaeological Jamestown. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, 1995.

Horning, A. J. and A. C. Edwards. Archaeology in New Towne, 1993-1995. Report prepared for the Colonial National Historical Park, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Cooperative Agreement CA-4000-2-1017, 2000.

Hume, I. N. Martin's Hundred. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

——. Pottery and Porcelain in Colonial Williamsburg's Archaeological Collections. Williamsburg: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1969.

——. A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America. New York: Vintage Books, 1969.

Kelso, W. M., N. M. Luccketti, and B. A. Straube. Jamestown Rediscovery V. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1999.

Mouer, L. D. "Chesapeake Creoles: The Creation of Folk Culture in Colonial Virginia." In The Archaeology of 17th-Century Virginia. Edited by T. R. Reinhart and D. J. Pogue. Richmond: The Dietz Press, 1993, 105-166.

Mouer, L. D., M. E. N. Hodges, S. R. Potter, S. L. H. Renaud, I. N. Hume, D. J. Pogue, M. W. McCartney and T. E. Davidson "Colonoware Pottery, Chesapeake Pipes, and 'Uncritical Assumptions.'" In I, Too, Am America: Archaeological Studies of African-American Life. Edited by T. A. Singleton. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999, 82-115.

Orser, J., Charles E., and B. M. Fagan. Historical Archaeology. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers, 1995.

Rountree, Helen C. The Powhatan Indians of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.

Shackel, P. A. and B. J. Little, eds. Historical Archaeology of the Chesapeake. District of Columbia: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

Straube, B. "Who is the Potter, Pray, and Who the Pot?" In Jamestown Rediscovery V. Edited by William M. Kelso, Nicholas M. Lucketti, and Beverly A. Straube. Richmond: The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, 1999, 35-44.

South, Stanley, ed. Pioneers in Historical Archaeology: Breaking New Ground.
New York: Plenum Press, 1994.