top shell
West Indian top shell

The West Indian top shell (Cittarium pica) is common throughout the Caribbean Islands. Like the more familiar conch, it is a large snail that can be eaten in both hot and cold dishes. The shells are also often used by hermit crabs. It is likely that this shell was picked up by a colonist in Bermuda or the Caribbean and brought to Jamestown. All four of the West Indian top shells found at Jamestown are from early fort period contexts, including the west bulwark, the first well, and the blacksmith shop/bakery.

Like the cahow bones and sea turtle shell, this non-local species may be a sign of the nine months the Sea Venture survivors spent marooned on Bermuda between 1609 and 1610. However, prior to 1609, all ships bound for Jamestown followed a route of sail which included stops in the West Indies, and therefore the shell could have arrived to Virginia as early as 1607.

While an Englishman may have picked up the shell to eat the snail inside, the shells found at Jamestown are more likely to be representative of the popular gentlemanly pursuit of natural history. Somewhat surprisingly for archaeological finds, three of the shells found at Jamestown are complete, indicating that they were handled carefully by the person who found them. They may have been kept as a traveler’s token of time spent in the Caribbean, intended for later inclusion in a curiosity cabinet.

Unfortunately, this artifact’s presence at Jamestown also represents the beginnings of human overexploitation of natural resources that occurred alongside the growth of colonialization and the international market. By the late 1800s, the West Indian top shell was locally extinct on Bermuda. After multiple attempts of reintroduction, it is only recently that the species began to rebound and it is now heavily monitored and protected.

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