The graphite recovered at the James Fort site is primarily in two forms: nodules and carved pencil points. While similar in appearance to the graphite in our modern pencils, it is not the same composition. Today’s pencil leads are produced by powdering low-quality graphite with a binder, such as clay, and baking it solid. Jamestown’s graphite is a completely natural form of the mineral that is high enough in quality to be used as is.
Graphite marking stones would have been easy for the colonists to obtain in London in the early 17th century. Because graphite was so portable, it was ideal for note taking, drafting letters or maps, and sketching discoveries. Mistakes on paper were easy to correct — to remove the graphite marks, all one needed were some crumbs of bread.
Of the 22 pencils that have been recovered so far, 13 come from early 17th century contexts. These objects, as well as the nodules, likely came from the region of Cumbria’s village of Borrowdale, a source the English were aware of for decades before Jamestown. Ongoing research is investigating methods to source this graphite and other ways the colonists used the mineral.