Tangible Remains

jamestown archaeology

Objects drawn from a 1609 well put people back in the picture at James Fort. Senior Archaeological Curator Bly Straube interprets the evidence.

Learn more: Historic Jamestowne


archeological curator at Jamestown Island. Bly, thank you for being with us today.

Bly Straube: Well, you're welcome.

Harmony: Well we talked to Bill Kelso, last who deals with the dig outside, it sounds like everything that gets dug up on the site outside, comes to you in your lab.

Bly: Yes it does, we have to look at everything. First step is washing, of course, to get that 400-year-old dirt off of things, so we can really look up close. We are behind in washing, we are actually still washing even though they've pretty much finished up outside on the site. That's expected that's part of it.

Harmony: So the feature that's being excavated right now is a well, and you suspect that it’s the first well that was dug in the fort, the John Smith well that was dug under the command of John Smith. As a curator, when you hear that a well feature is being excavated, what do you think? What do you anticipate?

Bly: Ooh, well the first, at first blush is sort of like, oh no, because we know it will be filled with material and a lot of material that's not so easy to deal with, because a lot of it should be preserved organics that do not survive in a dry context, but there are things like leather, seeds, nuts, wood, handles of wooden tools, things that just rot away in the soil.

When they’re buried in a well below the water table, they're in what's called an anaerobic environment, which means there's no free oxygen to attack those things and make them deteriorate, so they can come out intact, but you have to treat them immediately. You can't, if you just ignore them, they would deteriorate. So you have to keep them wet.

We keep them refrigerated until we can address them and the best way to address organics is by freeze drying, believe it or not. We don't have the capability to do that, we don't have a freeze dryer, but the Conservation Department at Colonial Williamsburg helps us out with that. So we have a great partnership with them.

Harmony: So it's almost a blessing and a curse when you find something that's preserved in that anaerobic environment because you find things that otherwise would not have not have survived, but they're real, they're real delicate to preserve.

Bly: That's right, they're unusual things. Shoes -- in other wells we've found little, tiny little shoes from children, the first sort of sign of children. Because it's very hard to tease out the presence of children just looking at the material culture.

You know we find things like toys, but what we would call toys, but to the culture they would be things that could be traded to the Indians or little amusements for adults. But finding a shoe you know, a tiny little shoe that has some wear on it, you know definitely know a child was present.

Harmony: When you say you have to keep those items wet, how does that work in your lab?

Bly: Well things are rushed in immediately, and we put them in polyethylene bags that are filled with de-ionized water, so that each object will have its own environment. If it's really huge we actually have a fish tank that we use for those kinds of things until we can see to them, and we actually have from this well, we have a couple of planks perhaps parts of barrels or a ladder or something that was down next to a wooden barrel that had been used at the very bottom of the well.

Harmony: Tell me about why a barrel would be at the bottom of a well. Could you explain what that engineering was all about?

Bly: Well, we often do find barrel wells in early contexts, and its a fairly easy way to keep silt from getting into your water supply, so you dig your shaft and you place your barrel at the very bottom. So, as you collect water you're always dipping into the barrel, which, because it has fairly porous sides, it always going to absorb the ground water that's around it.

It's an easy way without having to line the shaft with brick or as we've found in the last well we dug, they actually went to a lot of trouble to do planking all the way around. It was a square shaped well, and they had made a very intricate shaft of wood.

Harmony: I got to thinking about the mud in the bottom of that well, that you are digging out bucket by bucket full. Can you learn anything from that mud? I mean that's 400 years old too, does it tell you about the soil conditions of the time, drought, salinity, or anything like that?

Bly: With all our archeological contexts, not just the well, we do take what's called soil samples. That's done because you can find all kinds of things like insects, microscopic seeds that we've found. In the last well we found some tobacco seeds, which was quite exciting, because we know the well dated to around the time when John Rolfe would have been experimenting with his tobacco and if we can do a DNA test on the seeds, we can tell if it's his type of tobacco, what he was working on, or the Indian type of tobacco. We're still working on that, we hope to be able to do that test.

But soil samples are very important and we have a whole record of them from all over the site. The last well we dug, we sent a sample off to a couple of experts. One was an expert in insects, and she found some of the first instance in America of certain type of wood boring beetle, so we know that there's a lot of interest recently on ecology and there are discussions about, well how did these Englishmen sort of change the environment, bringing their domestic animals, and fencing off land? And, how did it just sort of change the whole pattern of life? So this is contributing to that in the first sort of insect life that would have an impact.

Harmony: I want to talk a little about some of the artifacts that are found in the well, it sounds like it's an interesting mix of items from local Indians as well as items that the settlers brought. How do you interpret that when you're thinking about the relationship between the native people here and the settlers?

Bly: We do see what appears to be a lot of intermixing in the early years. A lot of Indian pottery which is obviously being used to cook and consume meals. That makes sense if you think about how far apart the ships are, coming to Jamestown as people break their pots, they needed replacements.

But it also indicates to us the presence of Indian women. Because they are the makers of pots in their culture, they're also the cultivators of the crops and they're also the cooks. So it makes sense that they might, may be in the fort, fulfilling those functions for the colonists.

We know that there are Indian men in the fort, that's recorded in the record and they're hunting and fishing with and for the colonists and we've found evidence of one individual, perhaps more, making their native beads, their mussel shells, they live in the marshes, the mussels. And they're making them into little disc beads, little round beads and they grind out the center with a stone drill, which we also found in the fort. So it looks like someone's sitting there doing that while they're here.

Harmony: So it seems to me like if you're finding those Indian artifacts in the well alongside artifacts from the same time period from the colonists, that it's sort of reflects good relations with the local Indians, before those relationships were so badly spoiled that there was absolutely no cooperation between the two groups.

Bly: Yes, yes I think so. Even though there was this Chiefdom in the area, not all Indian groups were part of the Powhatan Chiefdom. We do have some Indians who were friendly longer than others, so it's not just like a uniform sort of battle between the two groups. That was, I think, part of the difficulty is not knowing exactly who your friends are and who your enemies are.

Harmony: As you're seeing the artifacts come back from the 1609 well, what has been the most intriguing find that's made its way back to you?

Bly: That's a difficult question to answer, because I think I really like the combination whistle and teething stick that came out. Because again it represents children, represents a baby, someone who’s teething. It's silver, and it's a little whistle, and on the end of the whistle there's a piece of pink coral.

This was thought to keep away the evil eye, it was supposed to have magical properties. It was also used for babies, for teething babies to comfort them. This was discarded in the top of the well. It's kind a poignant thought that perhaps this represents one of those children. We know that children came in 1609 or arrived in the fort in 1609. Perhaps one had died or died en-route or died soon after coming and this was discarded.

Harmony: As you study all the artifacts that you find from this well and the whole Jamestown site, what do you feel is the significance of their study, what can we learn from these objects that were discarded?

Bly: Well before we started our project, Jamestown was pretty dead. You know, Plymouth was able to take on the mantle of being really the start of our country. There really was nothing, there didn't seem to be anything new to be able to say about Jamestown, I mean people had culled through the records and put their interpretation on what had been left to us by the written word and there really was no catalyst for a fresh look at Jamestown, and that's what I think the archeology has really provided.

It's like finding a chest full of documents that you thought you'd lost forever, that you thought maybe had burned, they weren't around. Because if you can interpret the context correctly and understand the artifacts and how they were used, who made them, why they would have been here, how they would have been used here, which is, it's a lengthy process it's all kind of putting all the pieces together at once you can't just take one piece of that puzzle and make sense of the whole.

You really have to be looking at everything, and we change our minds in the process. By doing that, I think that we have shed a sort of different interpretation on early life, we're kind of putting the people back in the picture.

They had been pulled out and of course we have John Smith talking but, there's something very different about their tangible remains, what they were using when they were here, how they are adapting in it, we see modifications on their armor, we see the types of guns they’re using, why aren't they using other types. There are all kinds of questions that come up.

I think it's quite exciting, because we've only just begun to really look at this material and figure out what's going on. I think there'll be years and years of work that actually can go on with just the material we've excavated so far. I'm very excited about the future of Jamestown .

Harmony: Well we are too, Bly, thanks so much for being here.

Bly: Ok, thank you.

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