The recovery of shark bones from Jamestown is notable for several reasons. Sharks were not commonly caught and eaten by the colonists and would not have contributed to the normal food waste that we see in faunal assemblages here. However, they may have been eaten in dire circumstances such as the Starving Time. In addition, sharks are members of the class Chondrichthyes or the cartilaginous fish. Along with closely related skates and rays, sharks’ skeletons are primarily composed of cartilage. Cartilage is much less mineralized than bone and doesn’t preserve nearly as well, making it unusual to find, especially 400 years later. Vertebra contain some of the only mineralized bone in a shark’s skeleton, and along with teeth are often the only parts that remain. The shark vertebra in the Jamestown collection were mostly excavated from the John Smith Well (c. 1608 – 10) and Pit Features 3, 5, and 8. Many of these were excavated in 2009 and 2014, including a shark vertebra with distinctive butchery marks.
Shark teeth, however, are fully mineralized and preserve very well. In fact, our collection even includes a couple fossilized megalodon teeth from prehistoric sharks. Despite similar mineralization, sharks’ teeth develop very differently from ours. Many sets of teeth are constantly forming and maturing in rows in the sharks’ jaws, ready to quickly replace lost teeth. Some sharks replace their teeth as often as every two weeks. This abundance of teeth is why they are found so commonly in certain locations. The colonists were just as tempted to pick them up as we are. Gentlemen at the time often kept a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ to display evidence of their travels, knowledge, and wealth, but a fascination with unusual natural items would not necessarily have been limited to these gentlemen alone.