for National Geographic News
Archaeologists in Jamestown, Virginia, have discovered a rare inscribed slate tablet dating back some 400 years, to the early days of America's first permanent English settlement.
Both sides of the slate are covered with words, numbers, and etchings of people, plants, and birds that its owner likely encountered in the New World in the early 1600s.
The tablet was found a few feet down in what may be the first well at James Fort, dug in early 1609 by Capt. John Smith, Jamestown's best known leader, said Bill Kelso, director of archaeology at the site.
If the well is confirmed as Smith's, it could help offer important insights into Jamestown's difficult early years.
Records indicate that by 1611, the water in Smith's well had become foul and the well was then used as a trash pit. Archaeologists discovered the slate among other objects thrown into the well by the colonists.
Slate tablets were sometimes used in 17th-century England instead of paper, which was expensive and not reusable.
According to Bly Straube, Historic Jamestowne's curator, people drew games and wrote on broken roofing tiles, which could be washed off and used over and over again. "Inscribed slates from this time period are rarely found in England, so little is known about them," she said.
(Also see National Geographic magazine editor Chris Sloan's take on the discovery in his Stones, Bones 'n Things blog.)
"A Minon of the Finest Sorte"
Archaeologists and other scientists are still trying to decipher the slate, the first with extensive inscriptions to be found at any 17th-century colonial American site.
The scratched and worn 5-by-8-inch (13-by-20-centimeter) tablet is inscribed with the words "A MINON OF THE FINEST SORTE." Above the words are the letters and numbers "EL NEV FSH HTLBMS 508," interspersed with symbols that have yet to be interpreted.
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