Medallion with molded pelican
Pelican in her piety medallion

This plaquette or medallion found in 2009 discarded in James Fort’s first well depicts a scene which was popular in medieval Europe; a “pelican in her piety.” A mother pelican sits on her nest with her two chicks at her feet, and she is piercing her own breast with her beak to provide blood for her young.  

This image symbolizes self-sacrifice and has been used in Christian traditions as a depiction of Jesus’ sacrifice of dying on the cross. The pelican in her piety was used as a heraldic symbol and notably is worn by Queen Elizabeth I in a portrait painted c. 1575. The pelican, intended to suggest the Queen’s sacrifice for her country and her role as the mother of the nation, is so central to the painting that it is referred to as the “Pelican portrait,” and it serves as a sister image to the “Phoenix portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I completed by the same painter around the same time.

Pierced at the top, this medallion could have been worn, reminding the wearer of their faith or of a religious teaching to uphold in their daily life. The first well was filled in just after the starving time, meaning that while this item could have been useful in trade, it more likely was brought to Virginia with the minimal personal items a settler was able to carry.