head and arms of a glass angel figurine and legs of a human figurine
Torso of an angel figurine and legs of a human figurine

These two lampworked glass figurines are unusual finds and rare within the Jamestown collection. Made of opaque white glass, both show some surface decay after years in the ground. They are seemingly part of the same figurine. However, the lower torso is larger than the upper torso, indicating two separate figures are represented. One is a cherub or angel with golden wings. Only the upper torso with two broken arms survives. The other, measuring just 17 mm in length, is the lower half of a human torso, with the right leg broken off below the knee and the left foot missing.

These artifacts are two of only five glass figurines found at Jamestown, and their use is uncertain. A few hypotheses have been posited: the figures could have been brought to the colony by a high-status gentleman as a prized souvenir of previous travels; they could have been used in the local trade economy; they may have been toys; or they may have been part of an instrument brought to Virginia by a scientific-minded individual to measure temperature.

Sold as souvenirs of a visit to a holy place, “passion bottles” contained small glass lampworked figurines to represent religious figures and symbols. At least four extant passion bottles are known, and historical records document that they were marketed at holy sites beginning in the Middle Ages. However, not all souvenir bottles illustrated religious themes. More than sixty lampworked figurines excavated from a 17th-century cesspit in Amsterdam may be of the same manufacture as the glass figurines from Jamestown. It is believed that the sixty figurines from the Netherlands were used in souvenir bottles. Some with glass loops on their heads for suspension, these figurines are of men, women, children, birds, and gondolas. The gondolas suggest that they were manufactured in Venice.

Still sold today, thermoscopes are liquid-in-glass objects that, because of principles first studied by Galileo, use glass balls that either float or sink depending on the temperature. When temperatures are cool, water density is high and the glass balls float to the surface. When temperatures are warm, water is less dense and the glass balls sink to the bottom. Since Galileo’s discovery, different types of thermoscopes have incorporated advances in glass manufacturing, such as sealing the tops of containers.  Also introduced were colored glass balls and the use of “spirit of wine” instead of water. Similar bottles, produced more for entertainment than gauging temperature, used figures suspended from glass spheres or bubbles. As the density of the water changed, the figurines in the vessel moved up or down.

Although their use remains unknown, the glass figurines found at James Fort illustrate the complexity of life at Jamestown in the early 17th century. Scientific discovery, world travel, religion, and the exchange of goods all played essential roles at Jamestown, and artifacts such as these figurines allow archaeologists to continue investigating these and other topics.