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.

Historians have long thought that one of the hurdles the colonists faced was a lack of financial and material support.

William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), said the abundance of artifacts found in and around the well changes this perception.

"It has me amazed. I thought we'd find interesting things, but not in this quantity," Kelso said.

The artifacts indicate that Virginia Company officials in England eventually realized that the colony needed more support if it was going to survive.

Based on the wealth of objects, "the colony was better supplied than we originally believed," Kelso said.

The handgun found in the well is a 17th-century Scottish pistol in almost perfect condition, Kelso said.

As a snaphuance pistol, the gun had a firing mechanism that used flint and steel to ignite the weapon's firing charge. The Scottish variety was made entirely of metal and often elaborately decorated.

Archaeologists don't know how the unusual firearm ended up in the well, Kelso said, but it is now one of the earliest known European firearms used in the New World.

Saved by Tobacco

The big spear—known as a halberd—was one of the most spectacular finds. Although the halberd was used for ceremony, it was an imposing weapon with a tip that combined a spear point and an ax.

The halberd also is a direct link to an "overlooked, unsung hero" of Jamestown, Kelso said. The weapon is engraved with the coat of arms of Lord De La Warre, who was appointed governor of the colony by the Virginia Company.

The harsh winter of 1609-10 left just 60 of the original 214 settlers alive, and the survivors decided to abandon the town.

But before the group could sail to England, De La Warre arrived and ordered the colonists back to Jamestown, setting up changes to keep the colony afloat.

Another new arrival in 1610 was John Rolfe, the first person to experiment with non-native tobacco crops in the colony.

Rolfe somehow got hold of seeds for a species of tobacco that Spanish colonists obtained from South America and the Caribbean.

The leaves from this tobacco plant were considered so desirable—and therefore so valuable—that Spain imposed the death penalty for anyone selling the seeds outside its colonies.

Historians aren't sure how Rolfe obtained the Spanish seeds, Archer, of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, said.

What experts do know is that after Jamestown's shaky start, tobacco became the colony's main cash crop and helped make Jamestown England's first permanent settlement in the New World.

The discovery of the tobacco seeds therefore provides an important link to one of the country's greatest assets, APVA's Kelso said.

"This was the beginning of the family farm," he said. "That's been the strength of this country forever."

Plants Matter

In addition to potentially tweaking the history books, Archer said, the discovery of the seeds and other plant remains could prompt archaeologists to intensify searches for such materials at a variety of future excavation sites.

(Related news: "2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving" [November 22, 2005].)

Plant remains can contribute as much to understanding a site as guns, pottery fragments, and other "traditional" artifacts, he said.

"We love helmets and swords and buckles. But plant material gets short shrift.

"This little study, this tiny slice of dirt moved at Jamestown," Archer said, "gets people to thinking that there's a lot of stuff that you find in the ground that tells the story."

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