Alembic fragments found at Jamestown superimposed on an alembic replica
Alembic fragments found at Jamestown superimposed on an alembic replica

These fragments are part of a glass alembic, a vessel used in the distillation process. Glass alembics from James Fort are thin and friable, therefore an example complete through mending has not been found. However, the archaeological fragments served as models for a Corning Museum of Glass glassblower, who made the replica item seen in the image below.

Alembics were used in the seventeenth century to distill several products, including medicines, perfumes, flavorings, and alcohol. In addition, alchemists used alembics in attempts to transform less valuable metals into gold or silver, and in experiments to discover the elusive elixir of immortal life. Today, alembics and other associated glassware are still used in scientific labs and distilleries.

It is not entirely clear how the alembics were used at James Fort. However, the Virginia Company was explicitly searching for raw materials to become profitable precious metals, sending to Jamestown in 1608 a goldsmith and two “refiners” to assay or perform tests on various types of locally found metals. Also, in 1608, two apothecaries arrived at James Fort to discover new medicinal cures using locally available resources. These individuals likely used distillation equipment, which included alembics. John Smith records his observations of various metals. He discusses samples taken to verify the materials present, even stating “I am no Alchymist,” implying samples were sent to England for testing.

Alembics possibly were used in distilling alcohol; however, 1620 is the earliest written documentation of liquor manufacture in Virginia. Evidence of locally made corn-based whiskey is from a probate inventory that includes a copper still, not a glass alembic. Aqua vitae, wine, and beer were supplied to the colony during the early Fort years. Alcoholic beverages such as cider, wine, and beer, were soon made by fermenting various local foods like nectarines, plums, grapes, and corn.

Many alembic fragments were recovered from the Factory along with earthenware crucibles, a cucurbit (also called a distilling flask, the vessel used for boiling liquid for distilling), a ceramic dipper, and distilling dishes. Together, these artifacts suggest that alembics found there were used to detect and refine precious metals. While they may have had a dual-use, the Virginia Company’s focus on precious metals and exportable commodities from Virginia suggests alembics were used primarily for distilling acids to assay metals. Alembic fragments found in other Fort period contexts like the First Well and the Kitchen and Cellar may represent broken and discarded trash that was redeposited after the 1609-1610 starving time.