Jamestown Unearthed: Recycled Breastplate, Stoneware Found in Probable Cellar

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Mary Anna Richardson has been part of the team excavating the probable cellar just outside of the original Jamestown Fort. Recent efforts have focused on excavating the eastern chamber, where Richardson and others have found a wealth of animal bones and other food debris.
Mary Anna Richardson, an archaeologist with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, works at the dig site where the team has found a wealth of animal bones and other food debris. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

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 monthly feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort.

Though much of the attention in the past month has been on the discovery of the bodies of four founders of Jamestown, Jamestown Rediscovery has continued to make new discoveries at a dig site next to the reconstructed Jamestown Fort.

Recent findings at the dig site continue to point toward the likelihood they have found a cellar that once stood underneath a building right outside of the fort’s original boundary.

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists believe the cellar consisted of at least two rooms, with much of the past month’s work focusing on the eastern chamber. The western chamber has been largely dug-out and includes a possible well the team hopes to further investigate in the coming months.

The building that once stood on the site was likely tied to the expansion of the Jamestown Fort in 1608 that John Smith referenced in his writings. The Jamestown Rediscovery team believes cellars were built out of both a need for storage space and a need for mud to be used as a building material elsewhere in the fort.

A sturgeon scute is a large bone plate that is commonly found in digs around Jamestown, as sturgeon were a major food source for the first settlers. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
A sturgeon scute is a large bone plate commonly found in digs around Jamestown, as sturgeon were a major food source for the first settlers. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

If they are able to confirm the site is in fact a cellar, the team is hopeful they will also find answers as to why this cellar remained in use even after the fort cleanup effort in the spring of 1610, when most other cellars were filled in.

“After the winter of the Starving Time, Lord de la Warr ordered most cellars to be filled in because they were not able to keep water out of them long term,” said Danny Schmidt, the senior archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery. “But we’re not seeing that here.”

In recent weeks, the team of archaeologists has recovered several notable items from the probable cellar, including a large collection of food remains.

One of the larger finds among the remains is a sturgeon bone plate or “scute.” Sturgeon are a 250-million-year-old species of fish that used to be plentiful in the James River and served as a major food source for the colonists. They almost completely vanished from the river at one point due to overfishing and environmental obstacles, but they are slowly making a comeback.

Batmann jugs were common drinking vessels that often featured an applied medallion depicting a coat of arms or emblem of a prominent European family. Two pieces of this particular jug have been recovered so far. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Bartmann jugs were commonly used for drinking and featured a coat of arms or emblem of a prominent European family. Two pieces of this particular jug have been recovered so far. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

They also found a large piece of a German stoneware vessel, which likely would have been used for drinking ale.

“It was a utilitarian jug that most colonists would have had,” Schmidt said.

Many Bartmann jugs, this one included, feature an applied medallion that often depicts a coat of arms. This particular medallion shows two rampant lions, which is probably the symbol of the town where the jug was made or wealthy European family who had it commissioned, Schmidt said.

“We can safely say that this jug was made either in the late 16th or early 17th century, but knowing the meaning of that symbol will give us an even tighter date,” he said. “We have yet to trace this particular one, but when we do we will learn when the jug was made.”

The team also recently recovered pieces of an iron breastplate. Dan Gamble, a conservator at Historic Jamestown, will spend several months cleaning the piece via air abrasion. The machine used for this process employs aluminum oxide particles, which are much smaller and finer than sand, to break dirt away from the iron.

When larger and bulkier breast plates began to fall out of fashion, colonists would cut out pieces of iron from them to repurpose. The clean cuts on the edges of this plate are indicative that something like that probably happened to this particular artifact. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
When larger and bulkier breastplates began to fall out of fashion, colonists would cut out pieces of iron from them to repurpose. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

“We can tell that this is an older style of breastplate armor because it’s so bulky and heavy,” Gamble said of the find. “When they started using armor that was lighter and easier to move in, they began reusing and recycling iron from these plates.”

The straight edge along this piece of breastplate is a sign pieces of iron were cut off of the plate and recycled for other purposes, he said.

The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists will continue to recover artifacts while focusing on some of the architectural features of the probable cellar.