Complete broad axe (2173-JR)
Complete broad axe (2173-JR)

As the palisade walls of James Fort were built from upright logs, axes were a necessary part of the colonial tool kit. The use of axes in association with military fortifications dates back to the era of Roman legions when the construction of forts far from the core of Rome aided in the expansion of the empire. 

Two main types of axes were transported to Virginia and used to construct James Fort and many of its structures in the early 17th century. Felling axes, with long narrow blades, were brought for chopping down trees with deep, gouging cuts.  Broad axes, indispensable for hewing, were critical for construction at the Fort.

A total of 90 complete and fragmentary axes have been recovered during excavations by Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists. The majority (ct = 80) are fragmentary, typically elements of axe eyes. Nine axes are still complete, one broad axe and eight felling exes. All of the axes and axe elements exhibit signs of use, and many of the now fragmentary axes likely broke during use. Not only was wood necessary for shelter and to provide fires to cook over or for warmth, but the Virginia Company hoped that timber would become a major export from the newly-established Virginia colony.

The first carpenters to arrive at Jamestown with the initial colonists are named by John Smith in his “Proceedings of the English Colony in Virginia”, as Thomas Emry, William Laxton (Laxon), Edward Posing (Pising), and Robert Small. The palisade walls of James Fort were constructed quickly. After arrival at Jamestown on May 14th 1607, according to George Percy, the “triangle-wise” fort was completed about a month later on June 15th. John Smith wrote of the “extreme toil” of the task, which may partly account for the number of axes that archaeologists have found.

In fall 1608 aboard the Mary Margaret, a number of English tradesmen, and “eight Dutch-men and Poles, with some others” arrived at Jamestown, likely increasing the number of persons skilled with axes, and perhaps individuals who brought personally owned tools of their trades. Four complete axes and four axe elements recovered from Jamestown include markings which associate them with specific, although currently unknown, makers. All of these were found in 17th century contexts. Three of the marks include generally circular stamps — perhaps the designs are wheels, flowers, or crosses. Four of the marks appear to include letters or numbers, and one stamp is square with simple pellets or dots.

complete axes

makers marks