This small enameled gold artifact was an object of personal adornment for a wealthy Jamestown colonist. It may have been a necklace pendant, an earring, or a link in a decorative chain or rosary. The scallop shape may be a reference to St. James, whose shrine at Santiago de Compostela was one of the most visited shrines in the world during the medieval period. Perhaps a settler traveled to the shrine and purchased the badge before coming to Jamestown.
Small metal figures known as pilgrim badges were made for pilgrims who traveled to various shrines for purchase as souvenirs. Most were made of cast pewter, and they were worn on hats or clothing to show one’s devotion to a specific saint or shrine. The badges also had a practical purpose. As is unfortunately true on many historic sites today, numerous visitors to a site can cause stress on the physical infrastructure of the place. Pilgrims often broke a piece off of the shrine itself or the surrounding landscape to take home as a souvenir or as a token of a connection to the holy place. Caretakers of shrines developed these badges in the hope of reducing destruction to the sites. Kind of like trinkets that have become so common in gift shops today!
It isn’t known exactly how the scallop shell came to be associated with St. James, but it has been used as a symbol of devotion to him since the first half of the 11th century. Notably, it was the very first pilgrim sign to be exploited for financial and promotional purposes. At first, real shells of the species Pecten maximus were harvested and sold to pilgrims. By the 13th century, makers of metal scallop-shaped badges had formed their own guild and 100 licensed stallholders controlled the badge trade in a courtyard just outside the north door of the cathedral of St. James in Compostela. The huge numbers of pilgrims to the shrine of St. James and the ubiquitous use of the scallop shell-shaped badge allowed it to quickly evolve into a symbol representing all pilgrims. Similarly, St. James himself is regarded as the patron of all pilgrims and he is often depicted wearing a pilgrim’s garb.