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HomeNewsArchaeologists at Historic Jamestowne Find 400-Year-Old Slate Tablet
Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne Find 400-Year-Old Slate Tablet

Slate found in James Fort well
Slate found in James Fort well
Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne have discovered a remarkable piece of slate covered with faint sketches, words and numbers thrown in what appears to be an original Jamestown well abandoned and filled by 1611. Sketches of New World birds, flowers, a tree, and caricatures of men are scratched on the slate along with letters and numbers. Members of the Jamestown Rediscovery team speculate that the artwork and writing probably began in England and was further embellished over time as it was brought from England to Jamestown during the early years of colonization.

Sketch of Green Heron
Sketch of Green Heron
Historic Jamestowne Director Research & Interpretation, Dr. William M. Kelso said: "One of the major purposes of the archaeological project has been to learn what it was like to be at early Jamestown. To me this single artifact, with its crude drawings of birds and flora, offers dramatic evidence of how captivated the Englishmen were by the natural wonders of the alien New World."

The well is located at the very epicenter of the 1607 James Fort site. Archaeologists digging in this vicinity last fall discovered a 14-foot-square area that their testing determined contained layer upon layer of rich dark soil laden with 17th-century objects. There is every reason to believe that these sagging levels of dirt that held the slate are filling the "well of sweet water" that Captain John Smith built during the winter of 1608-1609.

Sketch of a flower
Sketch of a flower
At present, testing of the extraordinarily large hole extends down 5 feet to a point where it narrows to a more usual well-like circular shape. If this deposit is a filled-in well, it will likely reach a depth of about 15 feet below the surface. The last few feet should still hold water, which means preservation of organics like leather, wood, plants, and seeds that do not survive in the soil. Iron tools, hardware, and weapons found below the water level should also survive in good condition.

According to record, Smith's well water had gone bad by 1610 and may have contributed to the rash of deaths that occurred during the infamous 'starving time' of 1609-1610. It is very possible that the slate belonged to one of the unfortunate colonists who died at Jamestown during that tragic winter.

Text and numbers
Text and numbers
The slate underwent detailed digital analysis at the NASA Langley Research Center to decipher more of the sketches and text. Senior curator Bly Straube said: "With NASA's help we are using the most advanced technology available to isolate the layers of inscriptions from the worn and scratched surface of the slate. Then along with other techniques we may be able to identify the types of plants and birds our 17th-century artist was drawing and where he was seeing them -- Bermuda, West Indies, or Virginia?"

NASA Langley has scanned dozens of artifacts for Preservation Virginia since excavation began 15 years ago. But this is the first time technicians used a new, more sophisticated "micro-focus computed tomography x-ray system," called the X-Tek HMX-ST 225.

Digitally-altered photo highlights some of the slate's text and images
Digitally-altered photo highlights some of the slate's text and images
"It's a 3-dimensional imaging system that allows us to see inside materials without having to take them apart," said Ray Parker, a NASA nondestructive evaluation sciences researcher. "It's like a hospital CT scanner, only higher precision. We normally use it to inspect materials for aerospace use, like pieces of the shuttle or composites for hypersonic vehicles."


Sketch of a man
Sketch of a man
The eight-foot long, four-foot wide, six-foot high machine uses X-rays and computer processing to create a 3-D "picture" of whatever it scans. In this case archaeologists are trying to determine what's written on the slate tablet they found. "There's a deposit of rust on the tablet and it's covering up lettering and drawings," said Parker. "We're looking at the results of our scans to see if we can read what's there." This is the second time that Parker and technician John Grainger have worked with the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists. Last time they inspected a 16th-century Scottish pistol found in one of the fort's wells.

Digitally-altered photo highlights some of the slate's text and images
Digitally-altered photo highlights some of the slate's text and images
NASA Langley started working with Preservation Virginia more than seven years ago helping to identify artifacts. That role expanded when NASA teamed with Jamestown 2007 to promote the spirit of exploration then, now and in the future. During the 18-month long celebration to honor the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, NASA even flew a small lead cargo tag, bearing the words "Yames Towne," and some commemorative mementoes on board the space shuttle Atlantis to commemorate the nation's pioneering spirit.

"The dig will focus on this subterranean feature (potential well) for much of the summer. The summer will indeed continue the process of uncovering the 'Buried Truth' and provide a profound opportunity for visitors to experience first hand the true feeling of rediscovery," states Elizabeth Kostelny, Executive Director of Preservation Virginia.

If You Go
Historic Jamestowne offers a wealth of activities for exploring the first permanent English settlement in North America. Visitors can share the moment of discovery with archaeologists and witness archaeology-in-action at the 1607 James Fort excavation; learn about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavation at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, the site's new archaeology museum; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church; and take a walking tour with a Park Ranger through the New Towne area along the scenic James River. Entrance to the site is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center and Voorhees Archaearium are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and the grounds remain open until dusk.

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by the National Park Service and Preservation Virginia and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Admission is $10.00 for adults and includes admission to Yorktown Battlefield for seven consecutive days. Children under age 16 are free. National Park Service and federal recreation passes are also honored. For further information, visit www.HistoricJamestowne.org or call (757) 229-0412 or (757) 229-1733.

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