400-Year-Old Seeds, Spear Change Perceptions of Jamestown Colony

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
January 12, 2007

A treasure trove of unusual artifacts found in Jamestown could alter perceptions of the Virginia colony's place in U.S. history, archaeologists announced on Tuesday.

Tiny tobacco seeds, a loaded pistol, and an imposing ceremonial spear are among the discoveries excavated since 2005 from a 17th-century well in the colony, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.

The artifacts are well preserved because they've been underwater—and thus not exposed to air—for almost four centuries, said Steve Archer, a botanical archaeologist with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

(Related news: "Jamestown Colony Well Yields Clues to Chesapeake's Health" [June 30, 2006].)

Archer, whose work was funded by the National Geographic Society, discovered the three tobacco seeds—each no larger than the period at the end of this sentence—last summer. (National Geographic News is part of the National Geographic Society.)

Two of the seeds were badly charred before they fell, or were thrown, into the well. But one was in very good condition.

"As far as I'm aware, there aren't any other early colonial examples of tobacco seeds," Archer said.

In addition to the tobacco, Archer found evidence of more than 30 other plant species. Nearly all of them were native plants, suggesting that the colonists were trying to become less dependent on supplies imported from England, he said.

"They were learning new things to eat," Archer said. "This adds a different interpretation to [our understanding of] how they lived."

Well Stocked

In May 1607 English colonists founded Jamestown on the banks of the James River, not far from the site where Williamsburg would be established in 1633 (see a Virginia map).

Jamestown was intended as a revenue source for the England-based Virginia Company. The colony struggled in its early years and nearly failed.

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