Domestic pigs (Sus scrofa) were some of the most important livestock to journey to Jamestown with the English colonists, and their bones make up a large proportion of the faunal remains excavated from many contexts throughout the site. Barrels of salted pork were shipped from England as provisions, but live swine also arrived in Virginia from England and possibly Bermuda. Pigs are hearty, omnivorous, and reproduce rapidly. John Smith wrote about the first pigs to arrive at Jamestown, noting that “three sows in eighteen months increased 60 and odd pigs.” They were allowed to roam freely and forage on Hog Island, where they thrived with little intervention.
The destruction of this living larder by the Virginia Indians in 1609 during the period of hostilities that precipitated the starving time was a huge blow to the colony. In the following years, martial laws were enacted to regulate and maintain Jamestown’s limited livestock. Slaughtering cattle was largely forbidden during the second decade of the 17th century, so that the herds could grow large enough to become self-sustaining. Pigs on the other hand, produce many more offspring than cows and were butchered regularly during this time, and pork took on an even greater role in the colonists’ diet. They enjoyed many of the same foods we do today, like ham and sausage, as well as some less familiar dishes like pigs’ feet and head cheese (a kind of meat gelatin that does not actually contain dairy) that utilize all parts of the animal.
Zooarchaeologists, who identify the different species of animal remains found in Jamestown’s trash deposits, can make inferences about the animals based on the proportions of particular skeletal elements. The percentages of head, body, and foot bones found in a particular context are compared to the normal proportions expected in the entire animal. If livestock was raised, butchered, and consumed locally then the archaeological and normal percentages will match, whereas meat that arrived as barreled provisions contains mostly body bones. In Jamestown faunal assemblages pig bones generally follow the normal pattern, except for a slightly high percentage of head bones caused by the fact that pig teeth are large, preserve well, and are easily identified.