Some of the most familiar gaming pieces in the Jamestown collection are chess pieces. Chess was invented in the 6th century in India, and a version of the game that is virtually the same as what is played today was invented in the 15th century. Chess became popular across Europe in the 1400’s, especially once the invention of the printing press allowed the standardized version of the rules to be disseminated across the continent and even to the Americas. Bone and ivory chess pieces, like those found in the rubbish pits and wells of James Fort, have been found on European archaeological sites dating back 1,000 years. The bone chess pieces used in James Fort were manufactured by craftsmen in Europe and brought to Jamestown by the early settlers, either to be played with or to be used as potential trade items with the native Virginians. Many of these chess pieces seem to have been discarded when the early wells were filled in during the 1610s.
Of a total of 32 pieces needed for a game, only 11 complete and fragmentary chess pieces have been recovered at Jamestown. Through the centuries, chess pieces have taken on many different forms and appearances, making the Jamestown pieces difficult to compare to the modern appearance of chess pieces. Some of the smaller pieces, measuring less than 3 centimeters high may be pawns, while the larger ones, only an inch and a half taller are likely bishops, kings, or queens. While no chess boards have been uncovered at Jamestown, many gaming boards of this period included a chess board on one side and on the opposite side, another popular board game among 17th century Europeans — backgammon. Many small lead disks recovered at Jamestown may be gaming pieces for backgammon or other board games played alongside chess. Dice would also have been part of the colonists free time in early seventeenth century Virginia. There were many other 17th century games which could be played on these same two boards with the same types of gaming pieces.