WASHINGTON (Jan. 9, 2007)–Funded by National Geographic magazine, a microscopic analysis of 400-year-old seeds and plant remains recovered from one of the first wells used by Jamestown colonists in Virginia, including the oldest English Colonial tobacco seeds, provides a snapshot of the surrounding environment in the early 1600s and tangible evidence of the plants, berries and nuts that colonists were gathering and using to survive.
Three tobacco seeds were discovered among samples from the Historic Jamestowne well, possibly representing the first and earliest known evidence of tobacco cultivation at Jamestown and supporting historical accounts of attempts at tobacco growing during the early years of the settlement.
Steve Archer, archaeobotanist for Colonial Williamsburg Foundation who conducted the study, said tobacco seeds are rarely found at archaeological sites because of their tiny size, dry burial conditions and the practice of topping plants. The watery, oxygen-deprived well environment preserved one uncharred seed in excellent condition. The other two seeds are charred and were tentatively identified.
Archer, who also is an adjunct faculty member at the College of William & Mary, said more specific identification of the seeds through DNA testing could possibly answer questions about the timing of the transition from the local tobacco species, Nicotiana rustica, to the South American species, Nicotiana tabacum. Colonist John Rolfe, who arrived at Jamestown in 1610, successfully experimented with cultivating tobacco and somehow obtained seeds for the more desirable South American species, although Spain had declared a penalty of death to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard. Through Rolfe’s efforts, “the golden weed” became the cash crop that helped establish Jamestown as the first permanent English settlement in the New World.
The National Geographic-funded study also identified more than 30 different species of plant remains that were “overwhelmingly local and New World in origin.” Archer said he was surprised at the absence of European plants, with the possible exception of a single portulaca (purslane) seed, which is a genus indigenous to both the Old and New Worlds.
“More research needs to be conducted, but it appears that the colonists were trying to live off the land,” Archer said. Seeds from blueberries which ripen in late July and August were by far the most commonly found in the study. Other evidence of wild food gathered by the colonists included blackberries, huckleberries, persimmon, passion fruit, cherries, grapes and Chickasaw plums. The remains indicated that the well was becoming a trash pit during the late summer or early fall when the berries would have been ripe.
Bulrush seeds were also present, suggesting that the reed was not only being used for thatching roofs but that its edible tubers may also have been used for food, according to Archer. Whole hickory nuts, beech nuts and acorns appeared to have been deliberately hulled but were not eaten, possibly because they were not yet ripe.
William Kelso, director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne for APVA Preservation Virginia, said the 400-year-old leaves, nuts and other plant remains are extremely well preserved and look like they could have fallen into the well yesterday. Plants, seeds, insects, food remains and other organic materials survive in wells below the water table because of the oxygen-deprived atmosphere. “There is no other source for this kind of environmental data in such a preserved state, so precisely documented in time,” he said.
Other plant remains found in the well include blackgum, gourd/squash, American holly, sedge, beggar’s tick/sticktight, American sycamore, smartweed/knotweed, walnut, black walnut, squash/pumpkin, corn/maize (cob), American beech, sweetgum, common cocklebur, common bean, pignut hickory, maple and magnolia.
Built after 1610, the 6-foot-square, 15-foot-deep well, located inside the north corner of the fort, is a virtual time capsule of environmental and cultural data, according to Kelso. When it was no longer used as a water source, the colonists filled it with trash and then built an addition to the Governor’s house over it in 1617, sealing everything inside until archaeologists began excavating it in the fall of 2005.
Results of the microscopic analysis will be included in presentations at the Society of Historical Archaeology conference in Williamsburg, Va., Jan. 10-14. The study also will be showcased on a new interactive Jamestown Web site on www.ngm.com that will be launched before the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in May. Featuring a 3-D interactive image of James Fort and the first 3-D image of Werowocomoco, the Powhatan village where Pocahontas lived, the Web site will complement special articles on Jamestown and a supplement map in the May issue of National Geographic magazine.
National Geographic Books is publishing two adult books and four children’s titles on Jamestown and Capt. John Smith. The adult books are “Chesapeake: Exploring the Water Trail of Captain John Smith,” by John Page Williams, and an annotated and illustrated edition of “The Journals of Captain John Smith: A Jamestown Biography,” edited by John Thompson.
National Geographic Television is developing a television special about the history of Jamestown and the Chesapeake Bay.
The National Geographic Society and the Jamestown 400th Commemoration Commission have formed an alliance to educate the public about the many lasting and vital traditions that began at Jamestown. The Society has hosted an educational summit on the anniversary, developed lesson plans, distributed a DVD and maps to 8,000 educators, exhibited the Sultana — the shallop used by Captain Smith during his explorations of the Chesapeake Bay — and created an educational Web site, nationalgeographic.com/Chesapeake, which explores the Chesapeake in the time of the Jamestown settlement and today.
For more information, visit nationalgeographic.com and HistoricJamestowne.org.