Spade Nosing
Spade Nosing

Of all of the tools brought to Jamestown by the early colonists, spades were the most plentiful. Medieval shovels and spades were often entirely made out of wood. However, by the time of Jamestown’s founding, a metal “nosing” (also called a “shoe” or a “spade iron”) was commonly attached to the digging end of the wooden spade. This iron element created a sharper edge, increasing the tool’s strength and longevity.

While shovels typically have a curved, pointed blade, spades have a mostly flat, straight-edged, and straight-sided blade. This shape would have been helpful to the colonists at Jamestown as they dug into the earth to create the slot trench for the palisade walls, cellars that served as the colony’s underground kitchens and homes, ditches that served as property boundaries, graves for the deceased, postholes for buildings and fences, and wells that provided fresh water. The importance of the spade to the new colony was noted by John Smith, who wrote: “For in Virginia, a plaine Souldier that can use a Pick-axe and spade, is better than five Knights.” Spades were a helpful tool for digging, but they also became weapons. During the massive attack coordinated by Opechancanough across Virginia in March 1622, Ralph Hamor defended himself at his home, under construction at the time, with “spades, axes and brickbats”.

No wooden elements of the colonists’ spades have been recovered, but Rediscovery’s archaeological collection includes over 100 iron spade “nosings.” The vast majority appear worn down or broken and were likely thrown away after heavy use. Their sizes vary but typically measure about seven to nine inches wide across the blade. More complete examples that retain their languets measure about seven to nine inches long, from the end of the blade to the top of the languets. Languets are the attachment points for the nosing to the wooden spade.

Spade nosings were discarded in many early fort period features, but notable numbers appear in The Quarter, The Factory, the Smithfield Well, the Blacksmith Shop/Bakery, and the First Well. As utilitarian tools, they are undecorated; however, ten include maker’s marks. The blacksmith stamped the marks during the manufacture of the nosing, and the marks could indicate the item’s weight, quality, or maker.

Metal spade nosings were used, albeit more rarely, into the late 17th and early 18th centuries. On Jamestown Island, the first excavations began behind the standing brick church tower in the late 1890s by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA); they represent some of North America’s earliest historical archaeology work. That early fieldwork revealed the foundations of three sequential 17th-century churches, the Knight’s Tombstone, dozens of burials, and other church-related features. One curious feature uncovered by the APVA was a foundation for a small room in the southwest corner of the last church (1680s-1750s) to stand on this site. The room, identified by early excavators as a “Sexton’s Closet,” contained keys, bottles, and many tools—notably, several spade nosings dating from the early to the mid-18th century. These spade nosings may have been used to dig the dozens of burials inside and outside the church walls.

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