Nicholson Bottles

Project details

  • Date

     February 7, 2015

  • Task

     Study Collection

  • Category

     Foodways, Glass

  • Object number – 3408-JR
  • Material – Glass
  • Place of Origin – England
  • Date – c. 1680-1700
  • Context – Wine Cellar
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Foodways

In 2004 archaeologists uncovered a brick-lined cellar filled with 300-year-old intact glass wine bottles — one of the earliest wine cellars in America. One of the bottles bears a personal seal that may have belonged to a Virginia governor.

In the early 1600s — when water was not to be trusted — Englishmen drank 40 gallons of alcohol a year per capita. Winemaking was on the list of money-making possibilities for the first settlers of Jamestown. The Virginia Company boasted that Virginia “yeeldeth naturally great store” of grapevines “and of sundry sorts, which by culture will be brought to excellent perfection.” Captain John Smith’s report was certainly encouraging: “of hedge grapes, we made neere 20 gallons of wine, which was neare as good as your French Brittish,” and that if they were “properly planted, dressed and ordered by skillful ‘vinearoones’ we might make a perfect grape and fruitfull Vintage in short time.” (He was speaking of vignerons, people who cultivate grapevines.) In 1611, Virginia Governor Thomas Dale established a three-acre vineyard to test native grapes such as scuppernong (muscadine) and Catawba. Some French vignerons were brought to Virginia to aid the effort. Their failure was blamed on climate, soil, lack of equipment, and hungry deer.

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists found 10 onion-shaped glass bottles made in England between 1680 and 1700, clustered upright on the dirt floor near one wall of an 8 x 20 foot rectangular cellar. Other bottle fragments found in the area indicate there may have been as many as 30 wine bottles stored there. One of the intact bottles bears a glass seal with the initials “FN”, which indicates it belonged to someone of wealth and status. During the 17th century, it was customary for high-ranking gentlemen to order wine bottles from England stamped with their personal seal. It may be the mark of Francis Nicholson, the governor of Virginia from 1698 to 1705. He moved the capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699 after the last Jamestown statehouse burned in 1698.

The cellar inside the 1607 James Fort archaeological site is part of a late-1600s building that was built at right angles across the ruins of the earlier fort site. Archaeologists also found diamond-shaped window glass and a small section of window lead, which bears the date 1693. It’s possible Nicholson lived in the building over the cellar because there was no official governor’s house when he took office and he rented housing. Or he could have simply given the bottle as a gift to the homeowner — perhaps as part of a social visit to the house for dinner.

Though wine was the most likely use for the bottles, none of the intact bottles had corks or liquid remaining in them. Other Virginia excavations have seen wine bottles used for storing milk or cherries.