Called a jack of plate, this artifact is a rare archaeological find because of how intact it is. A jack of plate is a type of armor made up of many individual small iron plates sewn into a vest made of canvas or leather. While archaeologists have found over 300 individual plates (or “jacks”) across the fort site, this artifact is the most complete example of the vest ever recovered from Jamestown. It was found in situ, probably laying in the ground just as it had been left in the early 17th century. Once it was excavated in 2005, it required extensive conservation treatment to preserve. Conservation began in 2013 and continued over the next year.
A precursor to today’s bullet proof vest, a jack of plate provided the wearer with a greater range of movement than plate armor. The orderly rules of battle under which English soldiers had been trained were useless in Virginia. Stealth, speed, and the readiness to fight at any moment were important factors in many conflicts between the Virginia Indians and the English. This lighter, quieter, less ostentatious garment was likely preferred by the settlers as they learned the fighting style of Virginia Indians. Although these vests were not solid like plate armor, a jack of plate was still effective protection against arrows, swords, and other weaponry. Settlers were able to wear jack of plate vests comfortably for longer periods, which may have been useful when exploring new parts of Virginia or while on watch duty at night.
While gentleman could afford costly suits of custom-made armor (and some armor did make its way to Virginia), jack of plates were less costly to produce and were worn by common soldiers. The iron plates were often made by cutting down old armor. Jack of plate vests could have been made after the settlers arrived in Virginia, as this type of armor was no longer produced in England beginning around the time of Jamestown’s founding.