Beef was an important part of the Jamestown colonists’ diet, when it was available. In the first years of the colony beef arrived at James Fort packed in barrels. The absence of the provisions sent with the Third Supply, shipwrecked with the Sea Venture on Bermuda, directly contributed to the Starving Time in the winter of 1609 – 10. In addition to researching historical records for lists of supplies sent by the Virginia Company, archaeologists can use the animal bones excavated on site to tell the difference between barreled provisions and live animals butchered locally based on the ratio of skeletal elements. Faunal analysis shows that beef was arriving in Virginia packed and preserved in barrels because the cow bones found in early features are mostly from the body of the animal, where large cuts of meat are found. The presence of bones from the head and feet indicate that animals were butchered on site and the less desirable parts were used or discarded in close proximity.
After the Starving Time, as the colony recovered and worked to become more self-sufficient, cattle “on the hoof” were brought to Jamestown. The martial laws that governed the colony between 1610 and 1619 included severe restrictions on killing and butchering the livestock in order to allow the herds to expand and become self-sustaining. Barreled beef continued to be imported during this time while fresh meat came primarily from hogs, which mature and reproduce more quickly than cattle, and from hunting wild game including venison, birds, and fish. As the colony stabilized in the 2nd quarter of the 17th century, martial law ended and livestock, including cattle, became a larger proportion of the colonists’ diet.
This forelimb of an immature cow was found articulated, with all the bones from the scapula (shoulder blade) down to the hooves arranged as they were while the animal was alive. The growth plates at the ends of the long bones (the humerus, radius, and ulna) are still unfused, showing that the animal had not yet reached its full adult size. The bones were found in one of the many layers of fill that accumulated in the cellar of the Factory after the building fell into disuse and eventually collapsed. Features like this one are wonderful for archaeologists because the layers of refuse that accumulated as the pit was filled and leveled are full of interesting artifacts.