Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists Find Gun Parts, Rare Coins in Cellar Pit

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Historic Jamestowne's Memorial Church (Photo courtesy the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Historic Jamestowne’s Memorial Church (Photo courtesy the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

A team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia has been at work since 1994 uncovering the buried secrets of Jamestown.

When the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project started, the hope was to find the site of the original 1607 James Fort, which had been written off for more than 200 years as lost to shoreline erosion.

Since then, the team has discovered the fort and more than a million artifacts in the ground.

Jamestown Unearthed is a recurring feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort.

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists may have been busy identifying the four founders of the Jamestown colony who were unearthed in gravesites under the church for the past 20 months, but that did not stop them from continuing to dig elsewhere.

Work continues to excavate what is believed to be the cellar of a building that once stood outside the walls of James Fort. The team has been working on the area since last year, digging through an area believed to be a well.

In the last month, the cellar has produced several noteworthy artifacts, including gun parts and rare coins.

Two Irish pennies recently discovered by the archaeologists sit on a tray beneath a microscope in the Jamestown Rediscovery Project's lab. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Two Irish pennies recently discovered by the archaeologists sit on a tray beneath a microscope in the Jamestown Rediscovery Project’s lab. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

The coins are what is known as Irish pennies. The English minted them in 1601 and 1602 and tried to introduce them as currency in Ireland, however the Irish rejected the coins and they quickly fell into disuse.

Jamestown Island has proven to be the single largest source of the coins in the world, said Merry Outlaw, the curator of collections for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

She said the coins may have been brought to Jamestown to be used as an internal currency during the colony’s earliest days. The Irish rejection of the coins left no use for them in the Old World.

One of the earliest colonists was the son of the top official at England’s Royal Mint and may have been the catalyst in getting the coins to the New World. The coins are about the size of a U.S. penny and feature images of harps and Latin writing along the edges.

The team has also discovered the firing mechanisms to a couple of muskets. Guns were prevalent even in the earliest days of the colony. The first colonists established James Fort to ward off a potential Spanish attack, though that attack never happened.

Jamestown Rediscovery staff members display two matchlock firing devices discovered in the cellar pit. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Jamestown Rediscovery staff members display two matchlock firing devices discovered in the cellar pit. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

The muskets of the era were from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They used a matchlock firing mechanism. Matchlock weapons were the first that did not require the operator to lower a match into the firing mechanism to ignite the weapon, instead allowing the user to better focus on the target.

The wooden stocks of the muskets is long gone, however the firing mechanisms remain in place after 400 years. They were likely surplus military equipment from the English Army of the time that was sent for use in the New World.

Though several firing mechanisms have been found on the island in the last 20 years, the team has not located any barrels. The barrel of a musket from the time period was made of a higher-quality metal, so it would have been melted down to be re-used elsewhere, such as in farming equipment.

A few months ago, the archaeologists discovered a piece of wood covered in copper tacks. The copper preserved some of the wood and prevented it from deteriorating over time as almost all of the wood associated with James Fort has done.

After weeks of work, Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Conservator Dan Gamble has finished removing the centuries of dirt and rust attached to the object, which was initially believed to be either a book cover or the lid to a box.

Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Conservator Dan Gamble has finished cleaning up this artifact, but its identity remains unknown. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Conservator Dan Gamble has finished cleaning up this artifact, but its identity remains unknown. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

Despite the effort to clean the artifact, the team still has not ascertained its identity. There is a large circle of tacks and a smaller circle on the object’s face, and as tacks were used as decorative objects for both book covers and box lids, it may be impossible to pinpoint the object’s identity.

Gamble is in the process of sharing pictures of the object with museums and educational institutions throughout the world to try to figure out what the archaeologists found.

Out in the field, the archaeologists have started digging in two new areas near the cellar pit. Both are located outside the fort’s walls.

One area was identified by an imaging team from the University of Kentucky. The spot was likely a well, which is exciting for the archaeologists as the early colonists often used wells as garbage pits after they were decommissioned. Those garbage pits have produced several important artifacts over the years.

The other spot is a long line, where several large postholes have been detected, said Danny Schmidt, the senior archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery. There is little on either side of the postholes, suggesting a wall with an agricultural or military use.

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