The Angel and the Serpent

Project details

  • Object number –
  • Material – Glass
  • Place of Origin – Venice
  • Date – c. 1610
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Collections
  • Category – Featured Finds

Early 17th-century promotional accounts often likened England’s newly founded Virginia to a paradise. In the words of one colonist, “God hath filled the elements of the earth, aire, and waters with his creatures, good for our food and nourishment.” English poet Michael Drayton went so far as to proclaim Virginia as “Earth’s only paradise.” One satiric reference claimed the country’s chamber pots were made of gold!

Reality, as we now know, was quite different. Paradise in Virginia came with a price. Colonist George Percy summed it up by describing widespread sickness and death at Jamestown from “cruell diseases, Swellings, Flixes, Burning Fevers, warres and mere famine.” In some years, more settlers perished than survived.

Despite the endemic travail and hardships in James Fort, archaeological excavations of the site by the Jamestown Rediscovery project over the past 20 years have revealed that surprisingly fine objects were brought to the isolated frontier settlement. Among the most sensitive indicators to wealth and status for the early 17th century are the artifacts made of glass. Today we take glass for granted. But imagine a time when most people had no glass in their windows and when a glass goblet cost a king’s ransom. Much akin to us packing our very best stemware for a trip to colonize Mars, the English gentlemen bound for Virginia carried bits of home with them in the way of fine glass goblets as they sought to maintain the lifestyles and reflect the elite status they enjoyed in English society.

The Serpent

A fragment of a small façon de Venise (i.e. in the Venetian style) goblet was found in a c.1610 context of James Fort. Only the compound stem survives, consisting of a hollow ribbed tube wrapped around the thin stem like a serpent, thereby giving this style of glassware the name serpent glass. The clarity of the glass indicates it was made of very high quality soda glass and was especially valuable. By the 17th century there were specialized glasses for different types of beverages. The small size of the Jamestown serpent glass indicates it was for the consumption of brandy or aqua vitae. Many of the drinking vessels from the early fort period reflect this diminutive size, indicating a predominance of distilled beverages in the early years of the colony.

Seventeen of these wound serpent glasses were recovered in 1940 from a London site known as Gracechurch Street. This group comprises the largest number of early 17th-century compound stems found in England. If these glasses are English rather than imports, it is possible they are the products of the London glassmaking endeavors of Sir Robert Mansell, who was recorded as making crystal wineglasses of “extraordinary fashions.” Mansell was also a shareholder in the Virginia Company, the group of English investors who financed the Jamestown colony, and was a member of the London-based Council for Virginia. Mansell was very involved in the affairs of the Jamestown colony as evidenced by his influence in selecting Thomas Gates to be its governor.

The Angel

Lampworked glass figurine fragments comprise unusual finds within the fort. One figurine from a c. 1610 context represents an angel, with only the upper torso surviving. The solid glass figure has golden wings, and its chest has been twisted to create two arms, which are incomplete. Made of the same off-white opaque glass and found in the same early context is the lower half of a human torso. One leg has broken off below the knee on the 17-mm figure, and there is no foot on the other leg. Because of the identical color and surface decay on these two fragments, it is tempting to put them together (although the hips of the bottom torso are proportionately larger than the chest of the angel).

Dutch glass expert Harold E. Henkes believed these two fragments were from different objects and are related to a group of more than sixty lampworked figurines excavated from a 17th-century cesspit in Amsterdam. These include figures of men, women, children, birds, and gondolas, with the latter suggesting that they may be of Venetian manufacture. Some of these objects have glass rings mounted on their heads, indicating that they were to be suspended.

Henkes considered that the Dutch and Jamestown figurines are from souvenir bottles. One in the Corning Museum of Glass collection contains 53 small lampworked figures hanging from glass bubbles. Like the Jamestown angel, the figures are religious in nature and represent the symbolism of the Passion of Christ. At least four of these Passion bottles are known, and historical documentation shows that as early as the Middle Ages they were marketed in places of pilgrimage. According to glass curator Jutta-Annette Bruhn, Passion bottles “were religious souvenirs with a touch of whimsy – light-hearted personal mementos of a visit to a holy place.”

Not all souvenir bottles illustrated a religious theme, but they were all based on an early temperature-measuring device known as a thermoscope. These instruments were grounded in Galileo’s observation that the density of water changes as its temperature changes. A thermoscope consists of a series of weighted glass spheres floating in a water-filled tube. As the temperature of the liquid cools, its density rises and so do the spheres. Temperature is calculated from the lowest hanging sphere.

Did a scientifically-inclined Jamestown colonist bring a thermoscope with them from England? Dr. B.J. Sokol thought it was a possibility. In his 2003 book A Brave New World of Knowledge Sokol stated: “whoever did these scientific investigations, motivated by curiosity about the new-found world, used instruments that indicate the application of methods in the newer style, not derived from enthusiastic, esoteric beliefs, but conforming with sober, careful, measurable, experiential approaches.”

Of course we may never be able to determine how and why the angel was brought to Jamestown. Even if it had originally been part of a thermoscope this doesn’t mean that it arrived in Virginia as such. It could just as easily represent one of the “glass toyes”—perhaps even from a broken thermoscope—which the Virginia Company acquired in Europe as inexpensive items to trade with the Indians.

A serpent and an angel: one to hold alcohol, the drink of choice, and one to trade for food or to conduct scientific experiments. Both of these artifacts are rare archaeological finds in England, and both are unusual for their contexts in Virginia. As with many of our archaeological discoveries at Jamestown—whether it be the architecture, burial patterns, choice of weaponry, or the small personal possessions—these artifacts are providing new insights to life in the early settlement as Englishmen negotiated their new-found paradise.