Four bone dice

More than 60 gaming dice have been found in the excavations of James Fort. Most are made of bone, but some are ivory or lead. The lead dice could have been made by a soldier who also cast lead shot in the fort, but the markings made on dozens of excavated dice are also similar to markings made by prisoners in England who fashioned dice as a money-making venture.

Like modern dice, the opposing sides of the Jamestown dice add up to seven. The arrangement of the numbers became standardized in the 16th and 17 centuries, thereby allowing players to immediately recognize false or loaded dice.

Jamestown settlers played games brought from home. During England’s Elizabethan and Stuart periods, gambling was widespread and popular (William Shakespeare’s plays are filled with gaming references). Of the many forms of gambling, cards were still a novelty during Queen Elizabeth’s reign after they crossed over from France in the 1500s. Dice games were much older and showed up everywhere. Pass-dice was a popular game of the time in which two players would try to throw doubles.

Yet gambling, which could lead to violent arguments or dereliction of duties, was discouraged among the Jamestown soldiers. Captain John Smith complained about men “devoted only to idleness,” and the colony adopted “The Laws Divine, Morall and Martiall” in 1610 and 1612 to control behavior such as gambling and gaming. A second offense for playing at cards or dice could lead to a whipping, and a third offense could result in imprisonment for a year. Most of Jamestown’s dice are about the size of a pencil eraser, making them easier to hide when confronted by an authority. Another crackdown in 1619 addressed “idleness, gaming, drunkenness, and excesse in apparel.” However, by the 1660s, gambling was an accepted part of public life in Virginia.

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