Once items of exchange, these coins and jettons were transformed in the 17th century when they were pierced, bent, or rolled. They then took on new and powerful meaning for Jamestown’s early settlers.
When altered coins and jettons were first found on archaeological sites in the colonial Chesapeake, they were mysterious and interpreted differently. Some archaeologists suggested that they were rolled to tie the ends of laces like aglets, or pierced so that they could be used for trade with the Virginia Indians, which some undoubtedly were. Other researchers proposed bent or rolled coins were altered accidentally, even though most are tightly rolled or bent, indicating the actions were undeniably intentional. Boredom also has been put forward as a motive, although rolling or folding a metal coin required a lot of effort. If simply bored, why would someone cheapen a silver coin so it could no longer be used as currency? Finally, although it is true that silver coins were sometimes cut to make change, the bent coins in Jamestown Rediscovery’s archaeological collection remain simply bent, and were not cut to make change. So, why are these altered coins and jettons found at Jamestown?
Ever heard of a lucky penny?
Coins, especially silver coins, have long held more than merely monetary value. Just as we pick up found pennies for good luck today, many superstitious settlers at James Fort possessed altered coins in the hope they would bring luck and protect them from misfortune. In medieval and early modern England, coins were bent or rolled for apotropaic reasons. An altered coin could serve as a physical token of a vow made to a saint, often in a time of crisis, to be carried by the vow-maker until the task was accomplished. Coins were bent or rolled to protect individuals or their livestock from unexplainable illnesses and witchcraft. Without knowing how bacteria or infection operated in the body, disease was often attributed to witchcraft. Altered coins were believed to offer some protection, thus it is likely that many bent or rolled coins found at Jamestown belonged to settlers who experienced one or more of the numerous recorded illnesses.
Some of Jamestown’s transformed coins may have been bent or rolled prior to or during travel to Virginia, and others may have been altered after arrival. Danger, sickness, and fear of the unknown confronted settlers who journeyed to the colony in the early 17th century. Although colonists attempted to protect and comfort themselves by using apotropaic items such as these, many undoubtedly perished because of the illness or conflict they hoped to avoid.