Drilled Pearls
Drilled Pearls

Mollusks produce pearls by coating a trapped irritant in layers of nacre. Finding a natural pearl can require opening over a thousand mollusks, contributing to their high value and historical association with royalty, wealth, and status. Pearls have been collected by people across the world for thousands of years. Prized for their beauty and imbued with a range of symbolic meanings, pearls reached the height of their value in the 16th century. Large quantities of pearls were taken from colonies in the New World and imported from Asia to demonstrate the colonial might of rulers such as Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain or Queen Elizabeth I of England. Despite these new sources, and the manufacture of glass imitations in Venice beginning in the 16th century, the rarity of natural pearls maintained their high monetary value and exclusivity through the 17th century and beyond.

Since the 1920s, cultured pearls produced by intentionally introducing a nucleus into farmed mollusks have become common and made pearls widely accessible. With the exception of a few items dropped by modern visitors, the pearls in the Jamestown collection are naturally occurring pearls. Modern cultured pearls are often formed around a spherical bead, giving them a distinctly perfect shape, while natural pearls are more organically shaped and can sometimes be quite asymmetrical, providing one of several easy ways to distinguish between the historical artifacts and modern intrusions.

Thousands of mussel shell (Geukensia demissa) beads crafted by native women and piles of oyster shells (Crassostrea virginica) have been excavated here at Jamestown, attesting to the local abundance of these species and their use by both the colonists and Native peoples. Both species produce pearls, and John Smith described visiting with the Queene of Agamatack and being brought to a “place, (the name wherof I doe not remember) where the people shewed us the manner of their diving of Mussels, in which they finde Pearles.”1

Freshwater pearls are formed more quickly than saltwater pearls and tend to be smaller. They are also more likely to be cream-colored or off white, grey, or even pink or purple in color rather than white. Grey is the most common color among the drilled pearls in the Jamestown assemblage and all of them are fairly small, as expected for local pearls from the brackish James River. There is significant variation in the width of the drill holes, attesting to the variety of tools used to pierce them after the colonists wrote to the Virginia Company requesting drills that could pierce a pearl more narrowly than the stone drills used by the Virginia Indians.

Pearls were valued and worn by both groups, and were of great interest to the Englishmen as they sought sources of potential wealth in Virginia. About half of the roughly 40 pearls found at Jamestown were discovered in the John Smith Well, which dates from 1608 to 1610 and several more were found in the West Bulwark Trench, another very early context. This indicates that pearls were worn and likely traded during the earliest years of the Fort Period.

Learn about the excavation of pearls and thousands of other artifacts from the fort’s first well in October 2009’s dig update.

1John Smith. A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, which is now resident in the South part thereof, till the last returne from thence. Written by Captaine Smith one of the said Collony, to a worshipfull friend of his in England. LONDON Printed for John Tappe by W.W.1608.

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