Thursday, December 1, 2022

Jamestown Unearthed: Colonists had a taste for turkey

Animal remains excavated from a well are being sorted in order to determine what the Jamestown colonists were eating. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

As Historic Triangle residents begin preparing their Thanksgiving feasts this week, archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne are investigating the diets of James Fort colonists.

While the research is still in the preliminary stages, archaeologists have concluded one thing so far: much like modern-day Americans at Thanksgiving, the colonists appeared to have a taste for bird.

“They were consuming turkey,” said Environmental Archaeologist Joanne Bowen.

A missing puzzle piece

In 2006 Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeologists opened a groundwater well from the early 17th century. They’ve just now begun sorting the contents they’ve excavated. Their hope is to learn more about a little-known period in the James Fort’s history.

The colonists used the well for only a short time before abandoning it and filling it with trash, including food waste, said Jamestown Rediscovery Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett. Researchers know the well was built before 1617, because documents say the governor’s residence was built on the same site at that time.

Based on culinary clues found in one layer of soil in the well, the Preservation Virginia team believes the well was constructed after the Starving Time of 1609 and 1610, when the fledgling colony’s population was nearly decimated.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to use this information to fill in an important missing piece of the puzzle of Jamestown’s History, which is what is going on in the sixteen-teens,” Bassett said. “We know a lot about 1607 through 1610, we know a lot about the 1620s on, but this has been a period that has been largely absent from our record to date.”

Among the colonist’s trash were clues to their eating habits – including roughly 30,000 animal bones in one layer of soil alone.

The well, from which archaeologists excavated tens of thousands of individual bones. (Michael Lavin/Jamestown Rediscovery)

Mining the bones for clues

Environmental Archaeologists Bowen and Stephen Atkins have begun what they call a “rough sort” of the bones. They’re grouping the remains by species to determine how different animals figured into the colonial diet.

Researchers have unearthed Starving Time-era remains of butchered horses, rats and even venomous snakes. Those are animals only desperate colonists would eat out of necessity.

How do researchers know which layer of soil corresponds to which point in time?

By sorting through animal bones and referring to historic documents.

For example, historic documents from the colony indicate beef was not a luxury the early colonists could enjoy. Live cattle were not shipped over from England until 1610 or 1611.

The cattle meat they did have came in limited quantities and was likely shipped in barrels. So when researchers see a large proportion of cattle bones in a layer of soil, they conclude the layer dates to 1610 or later.

“Where you have two contemporary but independent sources of information you can really start being able to work through assumptions,” Bowen said. “All the pieces are really very critical.”

What colonists ate “at a moment in time”

Colonists’ diets also provide insight into other events, since dietary shifts typically related to environmental or social changes in the colony.

“The vast majority of this is a reflection of their diet here at a moment in time,” said Bassett. “When that diet changes, that should indicate that something is going on. People don’t just randomly change their diet, particularly in a setting like this.”

Researchers believe the soil layer they’re currently examining captures the transition period after the Starving Time. That’s in part because so far, during their early work, they’ve found relatively few deer remains.

The colonists couldn’t leave the fort during the Starving Time, due to pressure from Native Americans. That means they couldn’t hunt and eat wild deer.

Approximately 30,000 animal bones were found in one of six layers of soil in the well. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

As researchers continue to sort the animal remains, the Preservation Virginia team hopes to use the information to pinpoint a more exact date for the well’s construction.

“Archaeology doesn’t end when the digging ends,” Bassett said. “In some cases it takes years, decades in this case, to maximize the information we can learn from the material we excavate.”

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

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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