A complete, bent bodkin shortly after being excavated
A complete, bent bodkin shortly after excavation

A bodkin is a needle-like tool that was used by women to draw lacing, cord, or decorative ribbons through their corsets, bodices, other clothing, or even as part of a decorative hairstyle. On some fragments, a long eye is still present, where the ribbon or cord would be held in place. Lacing bodkins were popular in England and the Netherlands. Like the ear picker, some lacing bodkins ended in a tiny spoon for extracting earwax, an inexpensive alternative to beeswax for lubricating fibers.

Women often placed bodkins in their hair to keep them close at hand. This led to a purely decorative type of bodkin that does not include the eye but often has a small jewel hanging off the end. Several bodkins excavated from the James Fort site likely served as headpins. Dutch inventories and paintings illustrate that the headpin, which was distinct from a hairpin, was a fashionable clothing accessory in the Netherlands between c. 1610 and 1630. The headpin was worn in combination with a raised brim cap decorated on the edge in the form of a little crown. The pin or bodkin was pushed through the pulled-back front hair and secured under the cap.

A few bodkins have been found on 17th-century archaeological sites in Virginia, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts. A total of 12 bodkins or bodkin fragments have been found from Jamestown, made from bone, copper alloy, or silver. These artifacts were found in various contexts including the first well, the factory, the fort period cellar, and pit 1, showing that bodkins and the women who used them were present at Jamestown as early as 1610.

Some of the examples found in America have been personalized with the names or initials of their owners, providing a rare glimpse of women in colonial society. Most of the personalized archaeological examples seem to have been inscribed after purchase. One silver bodkin found at Jamestown initialed S.G. belonged to a woman we have yet to identify. Another with the initials E + S may have belonged to Elizabeth Southey. She arrived at Jamestown on The Southampton in 1623 with her husband Henry (a “Somersetshire gentleman”), her 6 children, and 10 servants. Within a year, her husband and all but one of her children had died. Elizabeth then moved onto property owned by Mr. Buck, the second minister sent by the Virginia Company. See images in the gallery below.

Along with being a personal accessory, bodkins could also have a more unfortunate use. On May 24, 1610, Lieutenant Governor Sir Thomas Gates implemented the Laws Divine, Moral, and Marshal in an attempt to reestablish order after the Starving Time. These strict codes of conduct included punishments for blasphemy:

That no man blaspheme Gods holy name…upon paine of severe punishment for the first offence so committed, and for the second, to have a bodkin thrust through his tongue… There is no evidence that the bodkins recovered so far from Jamestown were used for this purpose. However, their connections to the first arrival of English women and their inclusion in the Laws Divine illustrate how these seemingly-simple artifacts are heavily intertwined with key events in Jamestown’s history.

selected artifacts