This iron artifact is a musical instrument also known as a Jew’s harp or mouth harp. Played by using the mouth and jaw, a long flexible metal tongue piece is attached to the main frame, which would vibrate to create a distinctive twanging sound. Typically when jaw harps are found archaeologically, as seen in this example found at Jamestown, the fragile metal tongue piece is missing.
Jaw harps are one of the world’s oldest instruments, thought to have originated in Asia thousands of years ago. Richard Hakluyt and Sir Walter Raleigh, both early investors in the Virginia Company of London wrote about the “lewes harp” in 1593 and 1596 respectively, as a useful trade item. While neither of these men came to Jamestown, they may have influenced the transport of the compact and cheaply produced instrument to Virginia.
A total of 31 complete and fragmented jaw harps have been found at Jamestown, with more than half recovered from early fort period contexts. The twangy sound of a jaw harp being played would have been part of the cacophony of sound heard at Jamestown between 1607-1624.