For the archeologists and conservators of Preservation Virginia’s Jamestown Rediscovery Project, unearthing the buried secrets of the James Fort is only half the job description. Once the artifacts come out of the ground, the team must decide what to do with them.
In most cases, the items are carefully catalogued and stored away in the project’s vault, but occasionally a find is so compelling it merits inclusion in the Nathalie P. & Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, Historic Jamestowne’s on-site archaeology museum.
Team members are in the process of installing the first of two new exhibits slated to go on display at the Archaearium this summer — an unusual amount of activity for a museum that usually gets only one new exhibit each year.
The decision to double-up on new exhibits for 2016 stems from a desire to showcase two new major finds as quickly as possible: A ninth “named” tobacco pipe discovered during the excavation of a cellar outside the boundary of the original James Fort, and a reliquary that was found with the bodies of the four Jamestown founders buried beneath the fort’s church chancel.
The collection of nine Robert Cotton-made pipes — each of which bears part of the name or title of an important English politician, explorer or investor at the time of the early colonization of Jamestown — went on display in the Archaearium last weekend.
That exhibit case soon will be joined by a second case displaying artifacts representing every step in the pipe-making process. Collectively the two cases make up the new exhibit “Influence & Industry: The Tobacco Pipes of Robert Cotton.”
Second new exhibit examines religion’s role in colonial settlement
Later this summer the museum will launch “Holy Ground,” a slightly larger exhibit featuring the reliquary and other objects of religious significance that recently have caused historians to reconsider the role of religion in the early colony.
“This is such an important story, and as a public archeology program we want to get it out to the public as soon as possible,” said Michael Lavin, a senior conservator at Historic Jamestowne.
Lavin has been instrumental in putting together both exhibits. He and his team have found themselves drawing on a unique set of skills as members of one of the only museums that designs and assembles its own exhibits almost entirely in-house.
“From the artistic design to the installation, we’re involved in every step,” Lavin said.
Lavin has deviated from his usual responsibilities of cleaning and preserving artifacts to work on things like designing the cases that objects will be displayed in and mapping out their arrangement.
Jamie May, a senior staff archeologist, has done all of the graphic design for the exhibit, including arranging the images and the text used on the wall display behind the cases.
Senior staff archeologist David Givens, who wrote his master’s thesis on Cotton, has been the team’s point person for all things related to the pipe maker. He took the lead on laying out the process by which the pipes were made, and his expertise has guided Lavin and May as they complete their tasks.
With such a broad and varied base of skills and knowledge to draw upon, the Jamestown Rediscovery team has been able to create the entire pipe exhibit, which was funded by a grant from James City County, almost from scratch. They plan to do the same for the upcoming religion exhibit, which will coincide with the release of a new book of the same name exploring religion in the colony.
Pipe exhibit explains Cotton’s process
Lavin believes visitors will be impressed by the artifacts on display in the new exhibits. The pipe exhibit meticulously tracks every facet of Cotton’s process, from the pre-portioned ball of clay from which the pipes were shaped through to the finished product.
Jamestown’s collection includes hundreds of pipe fragments, but just one perfectly intact finished pipe.
In addition to the various phases of the pipes themselves, the exhibit includes many of the tools Cotton would have used. A piece of his kiln, the wire used to thread a hole through the stem of the pipe, even the tiny lead tools used to make marks and letters on the pipes are on display. The tools used for marking the pipes are especially notable because Cotton’s nine named pipes represent the earliest examples of print in the English new world.
One of the more unique artifacts in the pipe exhibit is a seemingly ubiquitous chunk of fired, discarded clay. It’s only upon closer inspection that viewers might notice the clay is marked with a thumbprint, which the archeologists believe is Cotton’s own.
Lavin hopes the pipes exhibit will be completely installed by June 1, with “Holy Ground” to follow in July.
The “Holy Ground” exhibit will include rosary beads, jet crosses and other artifacts of religious significance — but with a twist.
“Science and technology will play a big role in the religion exhibit,” Lavin said. “People want to know not just about the objects, but the processes we use to study them.”
In the case of the reliquary, the Jamestown Rediscovery team traveled to several different sites to use increasingly powerful X-ray technology to see inside the artifact without ever having to open it.
Though the new exhibits will add hundreds of new artifacts to the museum, Lavin assures regular visitors to the Archaearium that all the items they expect to see also will be on display.
“Nothing is coming out [of the museum],” he said. “We’re reorganizing to move more in.”
The desire to continuously showcase new finds through more creative and efficient uses of the museum’s space is what makes designing every new exhibit in-house such a labor of love for Lavin.
“We have a much more complete picture of James Fort than when the museum started, and we need to see that represented in the museum,” he said. “[That is why] we’re in control of everything, because no one knows the museum like we do.”