Quartz is the most abundant mineral on Earth and is a familiar sight underfoot in various natural and landscaped environments. When quartz is colorless and translucent it is often referred to as rock crystal, and has been a valued material for many centuries. Crystal quartz was cut and faceted into beads and other decorative objects by skilled craftsmen throughout the Medieval and Renaissance periods. Venice and Paris were important centers of this industry in Europe and India has a longstanding tradition of producing high quality stone beads. These regions have all been considered as possible origins for the Jamestown examples.
More than 30 cut crystal quartz beads have been excavated at Jamestown so far. While this doesn’t seem like many when compared to the thousands of glass and Native-made shell beads in the collection, it is quite a large sample compared to many archaeological sites where only a few have been found. At Jamestown, there are several examples of different shapes and sizes of quartz beads. Most are round, with many small facets, ranging from 10 mm to 16 mm in diameter. A few beads are barrel-shaped, elongated with a wider diameter in the center and long lengthwise facets. Quartz beads have been found in many different features around the fort. While many were excavated from disturbed contexts like the Confederate Fort that are difficult to date, others found in the First Well or the Kitchen & Cellar can be securely dated to the Early Fort period between 1607 and 1610.
Similar to glass Nueva Cadiz beads, crystal quartz beads found at colonial sites throughout the Americas are strongly associated with the Spanish colonization of the Southeast in the second half of the 16th century. Quartz crystal beads found at colonial sites throughout the Americas are strongly associated with the Spanish colonization of the Southeast in the second half of the 16th century. They were once called ‘Florida cut crystal’ despite the type site for the first archaeological examples being located in Leedsville, Virginia and finds as far north as New York and Canada. The origin of these beads has been a subject of debate, since Venice and Paris are located near the source of Europe’s highest quality crystal quartz in the Alps and were known to produce the some of the best artifacts from it. However, the cut crystal quartz beads found throughout the American Southeast were not produced from the highest quality stone or by the most skilled craftsmen. The flawed stones and large chips indicative of imperfect drilling that are seen in many examples, including those found at Jamestown, are a strong source of evidence that the beads were actually produced in Spain. This raises some interesting questions given the hostilities between England and Spain throughout the 16th and 17th centuries and the competition to colonize the Americas.