Slate Tablet

This is both a document and a miniature archaeological site, where lines cut across each other to mark different moments in time. Writing rarely survives for archaeologists because paper deteriorates in soil. Yet here on this sturdier surface is a preservation of ideas.

Slate tablets were used aboard ships to temporarily record the daily wind conditions and the ship’s speed and direction. A slate tablet is reusable when the marks are made by a slate pencil whose lines can be wiped off for the next set of marks—the proverbial “clean slate.” This tablet was found in a c. 1608-1610 well in the center of James Fort that was dug by order of Captain John Smith. The fort’s first well had gone bad by 1610 and may have contributed to the rash of deaths during Jamestown’s infamous “starving time” winter of 1609–1610. When the new governor, Lord De La Warr, arrived in the spring he commanded the settlers to pull down derelict buildings and to throw the fort’s debris into any open hole in the fort.

There are layers upon layers of inscriptions on this slate. It could just be build-up left by repeated use. Or someone may have written on the slate with something more dense than a slate pencil, making permanent scratches. Reading the slate has required skills from science and art. At first white chalk dust was rubbed into the grooves of the inscriptions so high resolution digital images could be made and enhanced by computer. Artistic highlighting of the chalked inscriptions brought out the drawings, words, and letters in varying degrees of clarity. The slate then underwent detailed digital analysis at the NASA Langley Research Center under a sophisticated “micro-focus computed tomography x-ray system”—a higher-precision version of a hospital CT scanner. Scientists at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute also produced high-resolution photographs using different light sources and focal lengths. This process, known as reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) exaggerated the grooves in the slate’s inscriptions on this archaeological micro-site. RTI could determine which inscription lines cut into—and therefore were inscribed after—other inscription lines. The curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespearian Library then read the images and applied her expertise in Elizabethan/Jacobean Period alphabets and phrases.

The artwork includes sketches of three men, a woman, and heraldic drawings of fleur-de-lis on one side, and four lions, two men, three birds, and a tree on the other. The people all wear clothing popular in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The men wear doublets (tight fitting jackets) and puffy Venetian breeches covered with panes (diamond-shaped openings). One man appears to be wearing a ruff around his neck, another is wearing a cabasset helmet, and a third is sporting a beaver hat. The only female is dressed in a doublet vest with padded shoulder wheels and a pleated skirt worn over a hip pad, in a pose matching a woman on a known 17th century tile. The drawings of birds are also fairly detailed, as if drawn from life. Two are obviously birds of prey: one could be a pelican, tern, or short-legged heron (green heron); and above it an eagle, sea gull, or even possibly a cahow or petrel native only to Bermuda. The Sea Venture wrecked on Bermuda in 1609 during a hurricane with 150 colonists bound for Jamestown. A palm tree on the slate may also indicate Bermuda. (The colonists wrote of using the palms for food and shelter: “Likewise there grow great store of palm trees…with these leaves we thatched our cabins; and roasting the palmetto or soft top thereof, they had a taset like fried melons, and being sod they eat like cabbages….”.) Based on artistic style, as many as three different artists could have drawn the people. For example, one side of the slate includes a number of drawings made with the slate in the same vertical orientation as the collared man: three flowers, and three fleur-de-lis, while four lions were drawn with a horizontal slate orientation. In the world of heraldry, lions in the stance depicted are in the “rampant” position, a common symbol on crests and shields.

Who could have made the slate’s markings? A leading candidate is William Strachey, one of the Bermuda castaways. The “Secretary Hand” on the slate was commonly used by attorneys for legal documents, and Strachey trained in the law at England’s Grays Inn. Also, Strachey’s coat of arms includes a rampant lion and fleur-de-lis. However, variations on the Secretary Hand were also used by secretaries and educated individuals for business and personal correspondence, so many other Jamestown gentlemen could have used it. Strachey’s relationship to those gentlemen could be a clue. There are two lined rows of printed text: The first line could have the date “1598,” and the second line states either “I AM NON OF THE FINEST SORTE” or “A MINON OF THE FINEST SORTE.” A “minon” or “minion” can be a servant or a type of cannon. Before his trip to Virginia, Strachey was hobnobbing with London intellectuals and courtiers who were indeed the “the finest sorte,” but he was penniless at the time and probably brooded over the fact that he had not been well-born.

There are other possibilities. The name “Abraham” on the slate could refer to metals refiner Abraham Ransacke, who was listed among settlers on the second resupply ship of 1608. He is never mentioned again. Could the slate’s lines of text and numbers be an inventory of the possessions of a recently-deceased? There is a line listing some commodity (“…vial of…” and “…bottle…”) followed by a number. One of the characters among the lines of text seems to be a symbol using two consecutive loops. Some scholars suggest certain words in this message may be written in a phonetic Algonquian script invented by the Elizabethan mathematician and scientist Thomas Harriot. Harriot was the navigator on a 1585 voyage to the Outer Banks of modern-day North Carolina, and he returned to England the following year with two Algonquian natives, Manteo and Wanchese. There he taught them English and they taught him Algonquian. Harriot wrote an Algonquian-English dictionary and also an Algonquian phonetic alphabet so Algonquian sounds could be pronounced correctly by Englishmen. Henry Percy became Harriot’s patron beginning in the 1590s. Henry’s brother George was an original colonist to Jamestown, becoming deputy governor in 1609. Smith refers to many encounters with the Virginia natives where they are conversing openly from almost the very start. The slate raises questions about the dawn of English/Algonquin communication.