Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Jamestown Unearthed: Common Cooking Grill a Rare Find for Archaeologists

A piece of an iron grill found during the excavation of a cellar at Historic Jamestowne. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
A piece of an iron grill found during the excavation of a cellar at Historic Jamestowne. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

The return of warm weather and longer days has given archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery Project the opportunity to make significant progress on the excavation of a cellar just outside of the original James Fort, and their work there continues to turn up unusual and enlightening finds.

The biggest discovery in the past month came in the form of an unusually shaped metal object.

The artifact, which conservator and curator Katharine Corneli described as a “semi-circle with a squiggly line in it,” had the Jamestown Rediscovery team stumped as to its purpose when they first stumbled upon it in the field.

Because of the fragile nature of the object, the archaeologists working to excavate it created what they call a “pedestal” – a supporting layer of dirt they removed from the ground with the object – to help safely transport it into the lab, where they began to research what their find might be.

What the team learned was that this unusual looking artifact was probably a somewhat common object for settlers at the fort to own: a cooking grill.

The archaeologists now believe the artifact is half of an iron grill that would have been used for everyday cooking and baking. In the early days of the fort the settlers subsisted on mostly native flora and fauna and therefore this kind of grill may have been used to cook anything from deer to corn to sturgeon, Corneli said.

Though the artifact in its current condition is flat, Corneli said she believes it may once have had small legs that allowed it to be set over a fire and left to sit with some sort of pot or Dutch oven on top of it.

One pot fragment in Jamestown Rediscovery’s artifact collection that was discovered in a well in 2009 has cooking marks on its base that look like it may have been used with just such a grill, though the team cannot say for sure if the markings completely line up at this point.

Now that the grill has been identified, conservators will continue the time-consuming process of cleaning it and preserving it while archaeologists in the field keep their eyes out for other possible fragments of this same grill.

An example of what a complete griddle might have looked like. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)
An example of what a complete grill might have looked like. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)

With the purpose of the object no longer a mystery, one question remains: If baking grills like this were probably relatively common at the settlement, why have archaeologists found so few of them?

The Jamestown Rediscovery team has a few theories about that, the main one being that grills like this were so useful and durable they were rarely ever thrown away.

In the rare event that the grill broke, the colonists may have chosen to repurpose the metal rather than discard the entire grill, which may also account for why this was such a rare find.

Though the grill was certainly the most surprising find of the month, the cellar has continued to turn up other interesting artifacts, particularly as the team has made the transition between two distinct phases of excavation in recent weeks.

This cellar, like other cellars in and around the fort, was filled in with trash by the settlers at the end of its useful life as a structure. In a relatively short period of time, the colonists would have filled it with all kinds of garbage and debris, which is why cellars like this one are so rich in artifacts and so interesting to archaeologists who study the material culture and consumption habits of a particular time period.

Until now, the Jamestown Rediscovery team has been working through those “filler” layers of discarded materials, but over the past several weeks they have begun the transition into what they refer to as the “occupation” layer, which is composed of things deposited on the floor during the use of the cellar rather than thrown in there once the structure was abandoned.

Though the grill is believed to have come from one of the bottom layers of filler, the occupation layer offers its own clues about life in the settlement.

Boxes of sorted artifacts, including bones and metal fragments, found in the occupation layer of the cellar. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Boxes of sorted artifacts, including bones and metal fragments, found in the occupation layer of the cellar. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

“This is when we slow down and start thinking about things forensically,” said senior staff archaeologist David Givens of dealing with the occupation layer, which necessitates the study of the physical placement of objects that were left in the cellar at the moment it was abandoned.

Senior staff archaeologist Danny Schmidt also emphasized the difference between studying the filler and occupation layers, describing the occupation layer as “a moment frozen in time” as opposed to the more scattered nature of the filler layers.

“Anything you find on the floor is a clue as to what that space was being used for,” Schmidt said.

So far the occupation layer has turned up a variety of animal bones and food remains as well as pieces of metal. While none of these finds allow the archaeologists to draw any definitive conclusions about the purpose of the cellar, they have served to reinforce the team’s beliefs about the age of the cellar and the date of its abandonment.

“The artifacts [we’ve found] are spot-on for [what would have been used in] 1608,” Givens said.

This finding supports the team’s theory that this cellar is part of a building erected during the 1608 expansion of the fort, which John Smith referenced in his writings.

The team hopes to finish the excavation of the occupation layer and undertake a detailed mapping of the structure in the next month, after which they will begin the excavation of the well found in the cellar.

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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