Amethyst Beads
Amethyst Beads

Five faceted amethyst beads have been excavated at Jamestown. Unfortunately, only two were excavated from undisturbed contexts: one from a layer of debris related to church construction in the later seventeenth century and one from a post-1700 boundary ditch. However, even the beads from disturbed contexts have evidence of historical manufacturing techniques. All five are between 7 and 8 mm in diameter, but they vary in shape from circular (flatter, with a shorter length than diameter) to almost round (equal length and diameter). The bead with the most flattened circular shape is very worn, obscuring the original surface, but the other four each have four rows of six facets around the diameter. All of Jamestown’s amethyst beads have deeply chipped dimples at both ends of the perforation as a result of the drilling technique.

Amethyst’s naturally occurring violet color is caused by iron compounds and the formation of particular crystalline structures in quartz. It can range in shade from pale to deep violet, and often occurs at only the tips of larger colorless quartz crystals. The inclusions and color zoning seen in the Jamestown beads are quite common in amethyst. Amethyst is found in a variety of locations today, and historically was likely mined along with colorless crystal quartz, which was a valuable material for beads, other jewelry, and decorative objects. However, differences in nomenclature and the understanding of minerology through history make it difficult to determine the source of historical stones. Known sources of amethyst include Spain, the Alps, or as far away as India, however, a lack of clear records through history complicates our understanding of where the amethyst beads found at Jamestown may have been mined or manufactured.

Beautifully illustrated manuscripts containing medieval gem knowledge (called lapidaries) often focused on the stones’ medicinal or magical properties and associations, while identification often relied entirely on color and visual inspection. Amethyst for example was believed to prevent drunkenness. Wearing stones against the skin was important in order to benefit from their perceived protective properties, and this could be accomplished by crafting them into beads or by jewelry settings with open backs.

Unworked pieces of crystal quartz, amethyst, and garnet have been found at Jamestown in features dated prior to 1610, likely collected locally as the colonists sought profitable natural resources to present to the Virginia Company, but there is no evidence that semiprecious stones found in Virginia were worked at Jamestown or transported to England.


Evans, J. (1922). Magical Jewels of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Particularly in England. Clarendon Press, UK.

O’Donoghue, M. (ed.) (2006) Gems Their Sources, Descriptions, and Identification. 6th ed. Elsevier, Oxford.

Ogden, J. C. (2021) Gem knowledge in the thirteenth century: the St Albans jewels. The Journal of Gemology 37(8):816-834.