Silver reliquary

Archaeologists unearthed a small, hexagonal silver box, which had been carefully placed on top of Gabriel Archer’s coffin. Subsequent analysis with state-of-the-art technologies has revealed that it is a reliquary, a container for holy relics, such as the bones of saints or pieces of their clothing. The small box is inscribed with the letter “M” on its sliding lid as well as markings that resemble palm fronds, wheat, or arrow fletching on one end. The reliquary cannot be opened because of corrosion, but powerful micro CT scanning has revealed that the box contains seven fragments of bone, almost certainly human, and two fragments of a lead ampulla. Ampullae were small, flat flasks used in medieval times for carrying holy water, oil, or blood. Although analysis has revealed much about the object, its meaning in the context of James Fort and why it was placed in Gabriel Archer’s grave remain much more mysterious.

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What are the characteristics of the silver box?

The box, measuring 2.28 in. by 1.25 in. (58 mm x 32 mm), likely originated in continental Europe. The English standard for sterling silver required an object to be 92.5% silver and hallmarked. The percentage of silver in this box’s makeup is only in the high 80s, suggesting an origin overseas but outside of England.

Conserving the object helped to reveal the markings on the surface. The letter M has been inscribed in the lid. Examining the cuts microscopically has proven it is an “M” and not a “W” because of the push and pull strokes used to form the letter. Someone has also scratched lines resembling palm fronds, wheat, or arrow fletchings on one end of the box. However the meaning of the symbol is unknown.

How is it possible to know what is inside if it cannot be opened?

Corrosion has permanently sealed the box over time, so attempting to open it would damage it irreparably. However new technologies can provide highly-detailed images of what is inside. The Jamestown team approached the FBI about how they would visualize in 3D the contents of a sealed metal box. They recommended that Micro Photonics, Inc. might be able to undertake Micro CT scanning to see inside. The first scan yielded immediate results: two irregular, dense objects—appearing to be made of lead—were present, but they were being held apart by other items less discernible in the image. In order to try to obtain more detailed images, the box went through successive scans with more powerful equipment first at Micro Photonics, then at Cornell’s Biotechnology Resource Center, and finally GE’s Inspection Technologies, LP/Customer Support Center.

The scans have provided very clear images of the contents of the box: two fragments of a lead ampulla and seven pieces of bone. The items in the box have been printed in 3D for further analysis. Based on examination of the 3D printed replicas of the bone fragments as well their internal structure visible in the scans, forensic anthropologists believe that they are almost certainly human in origin.

What was the meaning of this object at Jamestown?

The meaning of this object at Jamestown is still a mystery. Religion played a prominent role in early Jamestown, especially in regard to the establishment of the Anglican Church in the New World, intended to serve as a Protestant bulwark against the spread of Catholicism in Spanish America. From the beginning of the settlement, efforts were made to convert the neighboring Powhatan Indians to Christianity and Anglicanism, culminating in the marriage of Pocahontas to Rolfe in 1614.

The presence of the reliquary, a sacred object normally (but not exclusively) associated with Catholicism, may suggest that at least some of the early colonists were Catholics, perhaps members of a secret cell, and not followers of the established church. Many Catholic artifacts, including crucifixes, rosary beads, and pilgrimage badges, have been recovered in pre-1610 contexts. The box could have belonged to Gabriel Archer who was brought up by Catholic parents or to a Catholic who placed it on top of his coffin. Alternatively, is it possible that this revered object had some kind of special significance in the founding of the first English Protestant church at Jamestown? Was it buried with Archer in the chancel when all was thought lost and the colony and church were about to be abandoned in the final weeks of the “starving time”?

Who placed the object in Archer’s grave and why it was hidden there remain unclear. However research continues in an effort to understand more about the reliquary’s meaning and what it indicates about religious life in the early years of James Fort.