- Historic Sites
Digging Up Jamestown
Where the written word leaves off, the spade must often take over. A well-known archaeologist relates what the earth has revealed about the first permanent British colony in America
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
The aftermath of the massacre of 1622 resulted, not too surprisingly, in a hardening of the colonists’ attitude toward the Indians. John Smith made no bones about it, urging that they should be destroyed by all means possible and beaten out of the country. From a purely practical viewpoint, Smith also noted that hitherto, in a self-sacrificing attempt at peaceful coexistence, the Indians had been left to live in “the pleasantest places in the Countrey,” while the colonists had been forced to hack their fields out of the jungle. Now, after the massacre, the colonists needed no fiery oratory to send them out after their enemies. Although the Indians as individuals were hard to pin down, there was little difficulty in destroying their villages, crops, and canoes. Year after year these measures thinned the ranks of the colonists’ foes. Nevertheless twenty-two years after the first massacre the same Indian leader, Opechancanough, staged a repeat performance. Once again the colonists were taken by surprise; once again the outlying farms and settlements were destroyed; and once again the settlers’ death roll numbered more than three hundred. But this time there was a difference; instead of killing some 347 out of an estimated 1,300, in 1644 the Indians took a similar number out of 8,000. But if the Indians’ successes were proportionately less, the retribution was even more severe than before. Opechancanough was caught and killed, and the great Powhatan Confederacy that had controlled the Tidewater area when the colonists arrived was now destroyed.
Regardless of the fact that neither Indian uprising changed the course of history (at least as far as the colonists were concerned), considerable damage was done, and a great deal of blood was shed. There is every reason to suppose that here and there the soil of Tidewater Virginia is still stained, still scattered with broken artifacts, and the clay still reddened by the fires. It may seem curious, therefore, that no site has yet been found that can be definitely associated with either massacre. A possible candidate was the site, now on federal property five miles below Jamestown, which was found by Floyd Painter of Norfolk. The land immediately above the river had been cleared by bulldozing, and in the side of an open ditch Painter found two refuse pits, both containing artifacts dating no later than about 1640 and ashes and quantities of clenched nails that could have been the residue of anything from a few old crates to a burned homestead. From these pits the amateur archaeologist recovered a quantity of pottery, Indian copper beads, a lead bale seal for cloth issued in the reign of Tames I, iron tools, and an iron siege helmet. This last was an item of head armor of excessive weight and strength generally worn by military engineers who were likely to be working while exposed to enemy fire.
Mr. Painter’s helmet is one of the very few pieces of armor found in Virginia and the only English siege helmet found in America. Its great weight would have made it a most tiresome item of headgear for a hot Virginia summer, and one may wonder therefore how it ever came to be there. A possible explanation comes out of the knowledge that a quantity of armor was sent over from London in 1608, most of it apparently being unwanted pieces from the Tower of London. As far as the London agent was concerned, a helmet was a helmet, and if the colonists did not like it, there was little they could do about it. Mr. Painter noted that his helmet had a dent in it, which he attributed to a musket ball, an observation that sired various conjectural explanations ranging from the helmet’s having been used for target practice to its having seen service against the Spaniards. Unhappily, the noted military historian Harold L. Peterson spoiled these romantic excesses by explaining that the impression was merely that of a testing dent administered when the helmet was manufactured.
Another helmet of rather similar shape but of normal weight was found in a refuse pit on the Naval Mine Depot property near Yorktown. This helmet, known as a cabasset, was associated with numerous weapon fragments, all of the first half of the seventeenth century. From Jamestown itself have come a number of items of body armor. The most interesting pieces, a breastplate and backplate of light pikeman’s armor, were found in a single refuse pit filled prior to 1650. In the same pit were a cutlass, the guard from a basket-hiked sword, a musket barrel, and a fine swepthilt sword from the workshop of Johannes Wundes of Solingen in Germany. The only other substantial piece of armor from Jamestown was found by Confederate soldiers while digging their breastworks near the church during the Civil War. This was a hinged arm section that could have come either from a light suit or a three-quarter suit of a type worn by officers in the seventeenth century.
No doubt as time went by, a great deal of Jamestown’s armor was turned over to the blacksmith for scrap. Nevertheless, the records list so much that it is surprising that so little has been found. Harold Peterson, in his book Arms and Armor in Colonial America , has noted that after the 1622 massacre the colony was supplied with no fewer than 2,000 helmets, 40 plate cuirasses, 400 shirts and coats of mail, and 100 jackets armored with small metal scales. This store was in addition to the armor already in Virginia before the massacre, some of which had probably been taken by the Indians.