A Ditch and its Treasures

In the summer of 2003, archaeologists discovered the remains of the western bulwark ditch of James Fort. On the far southwestern end of the fort site, the topography sloped steeply to the concrete seawall and into the James River below. Prior to completion of the seawall in 1902 by the Army Corps of Engineers, this portion of James Fort experienced severe erosion resulting in a steep cliff face composed of a sizable portion of both the 1861 Confederate earthwork and James Fort. Only a small 14′ section of the ditch had survived the ravages of time. This ditch most likely once surrounded the western corner bulwark of James Fort, which has been lost to erosion.

The ditch contained artifacts that typify James Fort’s earliest contexts. Among these are Irish copper pennies dated 1602 and English white ball clay tobacco pipes with small bowls and teardrop heels. Numerous examples of ca. 1608 pipemaker Robert Cotton’s work including pipes, pipe shavings, and pipemaking saggar parts were discovered. The first complete Robert Cotton pipe recovered from the site was also found in this ditch. Several dozen disc shell beads associated with Virginia Indian manufacture were found here along with three freshwater pearls. The Virginia Company investors had hoped to profit from the pearls the colonists discovered in the freshwater mussels and by 1610 two Pearle Drillers were being requested by the Council of Virginia.

Two interesting medically-related artifacts were found in this part of the bulwark trench. One was a piece of sulphur. According to London surgeon John Woodall, who supplied medical equipment to Jamestown:

Sulphur or Brimstone is hot, concocting and resolving, it profiteth the asthmaticall, cough, collicke, greese, and resolution of the members: taketh away itch, breaking out of all the body: cureth tetters or ring-worms, and scurffe and cureth rheumes and distillations.

The other medically-related object was a section of human skull that exhibited attempts at a surgical procedure known as trepanation. Trepanning was a surgical response to head injuries whereby surgeons removed a plug of bone from the skull to prevent a buildup of liquids that could cause pressure on the brain. Surgeons could also use the cavity to remove broken pieces of skull. The skull piece was both robust and found to contain traces of lead, evidence that the individual had been a European male. There were three distinct marks from the trepanning saw on the skull, but none successfully completed the procedure. Saw marks along the top edge of the skull indicated that an autopsy had been performed post mortem.

After the removal of all layers of the west bulwark, a square feature was found that extended an additional foot and a half below the level of the ditch. The fill removed from the feature was a single layer of silty loam rich in organic material with comparatively few historic artifacts–a copper-alloy aglet and a 15mm diameter lead shot. Given the dearth of artifacts, and its depth and proximity to the palisade, it was possible that this pit was the remnants of a saw pit used in the construction of the fort and for the production of clapboard siding for export. John Smith recalled work in the first few months of the colony:

Now falleth every man to worke, the Councell contrive the Fort, the rest cut downe trees to make place to pitch their Tents; some provide clapbord to relade the ships. . . .

Production of clapboard siding as Smith described likely would have entailed the use of a saw and pit.


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