This Latin cross with three slightly expanded ends and flared base is inscribed with an elongated, stick-like figure of Christ with bent knee on a cross. Some of the crucifixes are infilled with a light color substance to make the inscription stand out. All are perforated at the top with a round hole, which indicates that these crosses would have been worn in some way, perhaps as a part of a rosary. To date, Jamestown archaeologists have recovered 6 of these crucifixes and the contexts of two confirm their early presence within the Fort. They are made from Jet, a hard organic material used as a gemstone in Britain since the Neolithic period.
The presence of sacred objects raises questions about religious life at Jamestown. Two decades of open warfare between Catholic Spain and Protestant England were settled in the 1604 Treaty of London, yet religious tensions still simmered as the two nations maneuvered to determine who would control North America. Just three years after the Treaty was signed, and amidst continuing imperial conflict between Roman Catholic Spain and Protestant England, Jamestown was founded.
The Spanish King, Philip III, believed the Jamestown settlement was illegal and kept a close eye on it. Concurrently, English fear of Spanish spies grew strong in the harsh living conditions and heated political community at James Fort. The establishment of the Anglican Church of England in Virginia was fundamental to the transfer of English culture and beliefs to the New World. Virginia was seen as the beachhead of an English Empire in North America that would form a powerful Protestant bulwark against Spain’s huge Catholic Empire to the south.
Catholics were barred from Virginia and yet numerous remarkable artifacts discovered here, such as these jet crucifixes, indicate their presence within the colony. Catholic iconography recovered from pre-1610 contexts imply there was religious factionalism, and possibly a few settlers were not strict followers of the established Anglican Church. The 6 jet Crucifixes recovered from Jamestown suggest Catholics were among the first settlers in the English new world.
There were two main European sources of jet mined in the 16th and 17th centuries, Whitby, England and the Asturias region of northern Spain. St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the 8th century, highlights English jet, stating, “Britain has also many veins of metals, as copper, iron, lead, and silver; it has much and excellent jet, which is black and sparkling, glittering at the fire, and when heated, drives away serpents; being warmed with rubbing, it holds fast whatever is applied to it, like amber.”
It is currently unknown whether the Jet crucifixes found at Jamestown were brought to Virginia from Catholic Spain, or from England. Understanding their origin could change our understanding of jet trade networks and the influence of Spain on the Anglican settlement at Jamestown. These artifacts are rare discoveries on post-Reformation English sites, but Jet as a gemstone has carried spiritual significance for its unique characteristics, indicating that the jet crucifixes found at Jamestown may simply be representative of the faith of the community, as opposed to explicitly Catholic symbols.
Sarah Steele, a postgraduate researcher and gemologist specializing in Whitby jet, and Dr. Richard Hark, Conservation Scientist and professor at Yale University, are currently collaborating with Jamestown staff to uncover the origin of the gemstones excavated at James Fort. Based on the identification of a parallel crucifix currently in the collections at the Whitby Museum, Ms. Steele has suggested that the crucifixes could be of English origin. Chemical analysis undertaken by Dr. Hark may confirm this theory. The research continues.