By Leah Stricker
Did you know that seeds, nuts, and even leaves can survive in the ground for many years, even millennia? Paleoethnobotany, the study of archaeologically recovered plants and plant elements, can tell us many things about how humans have interacted with plants throughout history. Archaeobotanists seek to answer questions like:
“What were the people of this culture eating?”
“How were plants harvested?”
“Were seeds and nuts being stored in specific places on a site?”
“How were meals prepared?”
“What was the role of plants in medicinal practices?”
“Which types of plants were used as construction material, fuel, or cooking fires?”
“How did this plant come to be domesticated?”
Of course, there are numerous other research avenues that archaeobotanists study, but the above questions are some of those that archaeologists working at the site of America’s first permanent English colony, Jamestown, have pondered as they have recovered amazing finds from the site. The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project is an ongoing archaeological investigation of 22.5 acres of Jamestown Island in Virginia. The land was occupied by various Virginia Indian groups (see Note) prior to the arrival of the English and other Europeans. By 1607, the Powhatan tribe had become the most powerful group in the region, and they accessed the island seasonally. Wahunsenacawh, the chief whom the English called Powhatan, had centralized power from a number of individual groups, and he ruled from the village of Werowocomoco, a site not far from what became James Fort. Archaeological work at Jamestown indicates that there was much interaction between these two groups during the fort period (ca. 1607-1624), both collaborative and destructive. The botanical remains currently under investigation support finds like Virginia Indian-produced ceramics, shell beads, and locally made bone and stone tools, including over 400 projectile points, highlighting this volatile relationship.
Recent botanical work at Jamestown Rediscovery was initiated thanks to funding from the Surrey Skiffes Creek Curation, Conservation, and Research Collection Plan. An ambitious project is underway that includes many facets, hopefully to be covered in future posts! This blog will focus on some of the recently identified and cataloged macrobotanical material, or plant artifacts that can be seen with the naked eye. These seeds, nuts, and other plant elements have survived for so long, because they have been preserved in one of two ways. If the seeds or other plant parts were burned, they became carbonized material instead of organic. They are no longer subject to microbial activity, and they will survive as tiny artifacts for a very long time. Other seeds and plant parts are preserved, because they were deposited and found in waterlogged environments. Similar to a shipwreck, if organic items like seeds or wood are waterlogged, microbes that need oxygen to survive are not present to break down the material.
At the beginning of this project, only a few formal archaeobotanical analyses had taken place using samples from Jamestown. These began to highlight the use of local plants, and perhaps the most notably recovered evidence from only three tiny seeds dating to ca. 1610–1617, the presence of tobacco in seventeenth-century Virginia.
This find confirmed what researchers had investigated through historical documentation. Ralph Hamor, Secretary of Virginia, recorded in 1612 that John Rolfe began experimenting with plantings of tobacco seeds he had gathered in the Caribbean. While there was a local variety of tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) already growing in Virginia, it was considered too strong and bitter tasting by the English. Rolfe had imported and developed Nicotiana tabaccum, the tobacco variety that became the primary export from Virginia from the seventeenth century until the mid-2000s.
The botanical finds from Jamestown analyzed and reported on by professional archaeobotanists have now been cataloged into Jamestown’s digital database system. This allows curators to understand the assemblage of botanical material on the whole instead of within the individual reports. Other finds, recovered by archaeologists during regular excavation and screening practices on the site, have also been cataloged, and their species identified, when possible. This data shows us some intriguing information.
1,779 seeds have been found on the site recovered by archaeologists and analyzed by archaeobotanical experts. Only 317 of these are unidentified. Of the others, over 30 species are represented, overwhelmingly locally found varieties. Some of the most commonly represented species include Cucurbita sp. (pumpkin or squash), Passiflora incarnata (passionflower), Diospyros virginiana (persimmon), Vitis sp. (grape), Vaccinium sp. (blueberry), and Zea mays (corn).
5,155 nut shells have been recovered from the site. Only 93 are unidentified. Of the others, only six species are represented. The nut finds are almost entirely hickory and black walnut, both locally available species. Only a small number of acorns (Quercus sp.) have been recovered
Other plant parts, including grape vines, leaves, pumpkin rind, pine cones, and many wood fragments—both cut, perhaps, from construction of the palisade walls or early mud and stud structures, and naturally occurring woods, like twigs—build a bigger picture of the types of foods consumed and other ways in which plants were being used at Jamestown 400 years ago.
The assemblage indicates that the colonists were consuming locally available fruits and nuts, pumpkin or squash, and corn. The colonists, more than once, wrote that supplies sent from England were spoiled or full of worms. They would have needed to supplement their diet with foods they could find locally. Corn was written about as a food, but perhaps more often, corn was referenced as a resource that was taken or given, depending on the political nature of the day.
Many of these species are mentioned by the colonists in their own records. The grape seeds and vine (Vitis sp.) may have been part of the first attempts to make Virginia wine. John Smith records these early efforts but indicates that the product was not as good as what was available in Europe at the time. However, in August, 1619, the newly established Virginia House of Burgesses codified grape production by requiring households to plant and cultivate at least 10 grape vines yearly.
Smith also wrote about “a fruit that the inhabitants call Maracocks [was a]…pleasant wholesome fruit much like a lemon.” Here, he is describing the fruit of the purple passionflower or maypop (Passiflora incarnata), a species related to tropical passionfruits (Passiflora edulis, P. ligularis).
It is not known whether the English would have prepared the hickory nuts in this way, but Smith also records pawcohiscora, or hickory milk, as a substantial beverage consumed by the Virginia Indians. The nuts were ground into small pieces and then steeped in water, not dissimilar from today’s almond, soy, and oat milks!
Although many of us learn about the “three sisters”—corn, beans, and squash—being the predominant diet of many Native American tribal groups, this does not appear to have been the case, at least at James Fort. Beans are represented by only two seeds in the assemblage. This could be due to the nature of food preparation and preservation of beans, but corn and squash are found in much greater numbers, and more parts of the plant have been recovered.
More work is currently underway that will contribute to this initial data, continuing to build upon our knowledge of plants and how they were used in seventeenth-century Virginia. Please join us at Historic Jamestowne and see archaeology in action! We are open seven days a week and would love to share our finds with you. Learn more at https://historicjamestowne.org/.
Author’s Note: Jamestown Rediscovery uses the term “Virginia Indian,” because we’ve been told that is what the tribes (at least the individuals we have relationships with) call themselves. I am sure that there is a wide variety, even amongst Virginia tribal members as to preferences, but that is what we go with institutionally.
Photo Credits: All photos courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery.
Leah Stricker is the Curator of Jamestown Rediscovery, Historic Jamestown, Preservation Virginia. She earned a Masters of Science from the University College London and a B.A. and B.S. from the VA Polytechnic Institute and University. She has held numerous positions within the field of archaeology both in the United States and abroad.