Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Jamestown Unearthed: Visiting Research Fellow Dives into Jamestown Trade Networks

Lauren McMillan has spent the past month at Historic Jamestowne as a research fellow investigating colonial Jamestown's trade network. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Lauren McMillan has spent the past month at Historic Jamestowne as a research fellow investigating colonial Jamestown’s trade network. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Though the cold, snowy weather has kept the dig sites at Historic Jamestowne closed down for the month of January, the reprieve from fieldwork affords the members of Jamestown Rediscovery an opportunity to double down on research and invite visiting archaeologists to investigate their collection of artifacts.

One such archaeologist is Lauren McMillan, a visiting research fellow sponsored by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, which is housed at the College of William & Mary, in partnership with the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

McMillan, whose lifelong dream of becoming an archaeologist was sparked by a middle school field trip to Jamestown, has spent the past month at the site researching the colony’s trade networks through careful study of Jamestown Rediscovery’s collection of clay tobacco pipes.

She has chosen pipes to serve as a symbol of trade patterns between 1630 and 1730 because they are uniquely suited to representing the material culture of the colony due to their ubiquitous nature during that time.

“The reason I picked pipes [to study] is everyone is consuming them – men, women and children all used them,” McMillan said. “I use pipes as a proxy for trade in general.”

Another reason pipes are particularly useful to archaeologists researching trade patterns is because it is easy to identify their place of origin with specificity. Pipe makers usually emblazoned their products with a mark or decorative detail signifying the country and even city in which they were created.

McMillan began her research on pipes and their connection to the trade networks of the Chesapeake Bay colonies as a doctorate student at the University of Tennessee, during which time she focused her studies geographically on southern Maryland.

The decision to expand her studies to Jamestown and the southern Chesapeake Bay area was born out of a curiosity as to how this region differs from her original area of study. McMillan hypothesized that the two regions, though geographically close, would differ significantly in terms of the pipe artifacts they turned up.

So far, McMillan’s suspicions have proved to be accurate. The types and origins of pipe fragments found at Jamestown are remarkably different from those found around St. Mary’s City, the colonial capital of Maryland.

The nature of the two colonies played a significant role in the divergent trade networks they developed. While Virginia was a colony owned by and generally loyal to the English crown, Maryland tended to have a more rebellious populace due to its location on the frontier during the period McMillan is studying. Differences in how the colonial governments in each colony were set up also account for their dissimilar characters.

One difference between the colonies’ artifacts is many more pipes of Dutch origin were found in Maryland than Virginia – a notable difference because trade with countries other than England was illegal in the colonies after 1651.

“There was a different kind of mindset in the upper Chesapeake. In a way, they were protesting imperial government by purchasing illegally imported goods,” McMillan said. “There’s not nearly as much evidence of illicit trade here. The difference in mindset is reflected through different consumption patterns.”

A variety of pipe fragments of different origins that have been found at Jamestown. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
A variety of pipe fragments of different origins that have been found at Jamestown. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Though there are not as many pipes of Dutch origin at Jamestown as there are in the northern Chesapeake areas, McMillan has found there is a wider variety of pipes.

This discovery fits with the important role Jamestown played as a colonial hub and well-established city by the mid-1600s.

“Jamestown is unique because it’s an urban center,” McMillan said. “They’re getting stuff from all over. This site has a wealth of goods that represent the 17th century world in a way no other site does.”

Though McMillan came into this research fellowship expecting to confirm the differences she had long suspected between the northern and southern Chesapeake regions, she found one of the more surprising results of her research was how much it also confirmed the interconnectedness of the greater Chesapeake Bay region.

“We see bodies of water today as boundaries between places, but they saw them as conduits,” McMillan said. “There’s this idea that Virginia and Jamestown are their own separate entities, but they are very much connected to the broader world.”

Though these subtle differences and similarities in trade habits and material goods cultures between the colonies may seem like a minor point to make on the surface, McMillan believes they are indicative of a much larger and more consequential issue.

“What I’m really interested in is understanding how these European colonists became American,” McMillan said. “They’re not just descendants of England; this was a multinational country from the beginning, and you can see that through the diversity and interconnectedness of the Chesapeake colonies and their ties to the Atlantic world.”

As for what her time spent at Jamestown has meant to her personally, McMillan described her fellowship there as “one of the most overwhelming privileges” she has ever had.

“This is where archaeology in the United States was born,” McMillan said. “Being here has been an amazing experience.”



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. Click here to read past articles.

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