Most of the population at Jamestown in the earliest years of the settlement were living in crowded shared spaces and wouldn’t have been able to secure their belongings behind locked doors. Chests, boxes, or coffers were used to transport possessions to Virginia. Once settled, the colonists would have continued to use these lockable containers to contain and protect their possessions. Escutcheons are primarily decorative accents applied to a box or chest around a keyhole, but also served to protect the lock mechanism and the locked object from wear. They would have been used along with furniture lock hasps to secure belongings. While some escutcheons have been found in later 17th century features at Jamestown, the majority have been found in features that were no longer in use after the Starving Time, including pit houses (like these pictured artifacts from Pits 1 and 5) and the fort’s first well.
The fact that many of these escutcheons were no longer needed after the Starving Time may be indicative of the high death rates that occurred during the winter of 1609-10, or may highlight the institution of martial law in the spring of 1610. The Lawes Devine, Morall and Martiall, which was written by Sir Thomas Gates, attempted to bring order to the struggling community. Among the many rules it established, the provisioning of food and other supplies was centralized, trade with the Virginia Indians was regulated (meaning individuals could no longer trade for personal gain), and punishments for those caught stealing from others were instituted. Martial law transformed the colony into a more communal environment, potentially removing the need for possessions to be locked away in chests or boxes. These changes are seen in the material culture record with the decline of escutcheons and furniture lock hasps and the increase of pintles.