A New Well to Amend the Old

This square well was located near the northern bulwark of James Fort and served the fort in the early years of the colony. The well shaft was square and made up of two layers of oak planks, one horizontal and one vertical, secured to upright posts at each of the corners with wooden pegs. The interior of this wood frame structure measured 5 feet by 5 feet. From modern grade the well was 16 feet deep. This well may have become contaminated, dried up, or simply silted in, and ultimately it was abandoned as a water source to become a refuse pit. Over 120,000 artifacts were recovered from the trash layers in the well shaft. Many of these were in pristine condition because they came from the bottom saturated layers of the well. At that level, anaerobic conditions had slowed the growth of bacteria and the subsequent breakdown of organic objects such as seeds, leather, wood, and insect remains.

Some of the artifact highlights from the well include a loaded late 16th-century Scottish snaphaunce pistol with a wooden fishtail butt, a complete Bartmann jug, surgical tools, numerous leather shoe parts, and a lead shipping tag printed with the word “Yamestowne.” Seeds and leaves were recovered from waterlogged layers including maize, pumpkin, squash, and tobacco seeds, all of which were cultivated Virginia species, but wild flora made up the bulk of the assemblage, which included blueberries, wild cherry, blackberries, and various nuts such as walnut, hickory, beech, and acorn. The presence of only Virginia plants in these fill layers demonstrates that the fill was deposited at a time when the colonists were living off what the land had to offer rather than relying on plants imported from Europe.

While many of the artifacts helped to date the well, none was better than a halberd found in the bottom of the well bearing the heraldry of Lord De La Warr who arrived at Jamestown in June of 1610. This indicates that the fill above the halberd could not have been deposited in the well until after June of 1610. The well was filled and sealed between 1617 and 1619, when the chimney to the residence of Governor Samuel Argall was built directly on top of it.

Based on the archaeological evidence, this well probably was not the first well at James Fort that was dug at the beginning of 1609 when John Smith reports, “we digged a faire Well of fresh water in the Fort of excellent, sweet water which till then was wanting.” More likely it was the second well at the fort and was built upon the arrival of Sir Thomas Dale in 1611 which was, “a new well for the amending of the most unholsome water which the old afforded.” Excavations during the 2009 field season appear to have revealed James Fort’s first well.


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