Archaeologists at James Fort are finding the remains of dozens of sturgeon in the same cellar they discovered “Jane”, the 14-year-old cannibalism victim.
The sturgeon scutes, which are pieces of pyramid-shaped bone covered in pores that line sturgeon bodies, are evidence the settlers brought the large fish into this kitchen pit, a room dug into the ground about 5 feet deep. The kitchen pit was about 50-100 feet away from the water, and sturgeon of that time weighed up to 800 pounds compared to the average 300 pounds of the endangered sturgeon swimming in the James River today.
The latest discovery shows the scutes in the common kitchen were deposited while the kitchen was still in use.
To date, the largest deposit of scutes at Historic Jamestowne had been found in the John Smith well, merely feet from where the current scutes are being discovered. Thousands of scutes were found in the well, which had been filled with trash, to account for at least 34 different sturgeon.
Dr. Matthew Balazik, a post-graduate researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Economics, is confident the number of sturgeon represented by the scutes found in the kitchen will be at least the same number found in the well, but will likely exceed it.
Balazik, who has been called the “sturgeon whisperer,” is now working with Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists to determine additional information on the new sturgeon scutes. Balazik previously worked with the archaeological team on the bones found in the well.
Continued excavation of the L-shaped cellar that provided a final resting place to “Jane” led to the latest discovery. At Historic Jamestowne, Jane’s remains were discovered among a trash pile, which was established in a common kitchen area after the kitchen was no longer used, likely in the spring of 1610, according to Preservation Virginia Senior Staff Archaeologist Daniel Schmidt.
Now that the trash layers have been removed, archaeologists are uncovering the layers from the time the kitchen was in use, likely in 1609. The scutes are littering the kitchen floor in high numbers. The walls that establish the current pit as they wait to be excavated further also show a number of scutes.
“What we have here is basically a layer of sturgeon remains,” Schmidt said.
On two sides of the kitchen are large brick ovens; once excavated they’ll be igloo-shaped cavities. Covering the floor of the kitchen are a layer of ash and the sturgeon scutes, as well as pieces of pottery and a few cannon balls.
Along with scutes, pieces of bone called fin spines, which connects fins to a fish body similar to a human shoulder, have been found.
The spines can be cut to reveal a number of rings that tell how old the fish was, just like tree rings.
“These are like gold,” Balazik said.
A sturgeon only has two of the shoulder-like spine bones.
Additionally, a piece of bone from near the sturgeon throat has been found. It has not yet been excavated but is visible in the top layer of dirt in the kitchen floor. Unlike the completely porous scutes, the throat bone has a porous section below a smoother semi-circle shaped section of bone. Because of the location on the fish’s body, it’s likely the sturgeon were being butchered in the kitchen.
On some of the scutes found in the kitchen, burnt sections or ash is found. At this point, it’s unclear why the sturgeon were being butchered in the kitchen, especially when considering the length and weight of the fish.
Balazik has found scutes of modern James River sturgeon, the largest of which was belonged to an eight-foot sturgeon.
In the scutes excavated so far, the size of a piece of a lateral scute – a scute that would have run down the side of the sturgeon — has led Balazik to believe it was from a female fish that was a little more than 11 feet long and likely weighed 450-500 pounds.
“That’s a realm we’ve never seen,” Balazik said. He explained the lateral scute piece, which is about 4 inches long, may not have been the biggest scute that was on the fish.
Writing from John Smith indicate the sturgeon were a staple for settlers, primarily in 1607 and 1609.
“We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man, of which the industrious by drying and pounding, mingled with caviar, sorrel, and other wholesome herbs, would make bread and good meat,” Smith wrote in early 1609.
Schmidt thinks the scutes being found are from the fall of 1609, the time that led into the Starving Time—the winter of 1609-10 when Jane was cannibalized by the settlers. Balazik will hopefully be able to determine whether the scutes are from the spring or fall.
Sturgeon “run” – return from the ocean to spawn– in spring and fall; they weren’t around in the winter to allay starvation during the winter of 1609-10. Also, because the fish were so large and are covered in bony scutes rather than slippery scales, the settlers’ nets weren’t ideal for catching them. Written records show the fishing nets had rotted away by the time Lord De La Warr, Thomas West, arrived at the fort at the end of the Starving Time.