Archaeologists have excavated more than 5000 beads at Jamestown. From imported types to local, native-made beads, these small artifacts help archaeologists understand early 17th-century trade economies, socio-political systems, cultural preferences, and interactions between different cultural groups in North America and Europe.
Small mussel shell beads, traditionally made by native women, were used as currency between native groups and tribes in North America. Finds of over 2000 of these beads in their incomplete and complete forms in early James Fort contexts illuminates the lives of native women in 1607, some of whom were likely living and working inside the fort in the initial years of settlement. The daily experiences of women and native peoples are often recorded only from European men’s perspective or not recorded at all. Therefore, these artifacts speak for a part of the population that had a significant role in the cultural interactions occurring in eastern North America in the early 17th century.
Glass beads, some as small as 1.2 mm in diameter, and lapidary beads, made from at least ten different mineral, stone, or organic material types, also provide a window into native life. Beads, like copper items, were prized by native Virginians and other local groups as symbols of status within their community. Beads were traded with the English in exchange for food, with each group highly valuing the goods they received. The origins of glass and lapidary beads also highlight European trade systems and the interchange of knowledge as various European countries began colonizing land far beyond their borders.
Change over time, including the overall prevalence and discard of beads and the introduction or disappearance of different styles, highlights changing relationships and economic structure at Jamestown and beyond. Such studies demonstrate that even some of the smallest artifacts can tell the biggest stories.