Known to archaeologists as “faunal” material, animal remains (bone and shell) is one of the most informative artifact types found at Jamestown. For the past two decades, the project has collaborated with animal bone specialists known as “zooarchaeologists.” Using a modern comparative collection, zooarchaeologists identify the taxa, species, maturity, butchery type, and other characteristics for individual bones and shells. This pursuit of how people procured, processed, and consumed animal meat allows archaeologists to gauge the social, economic, and environmental conditions in and from which such food was acquired and eaten. For example, our best indicator of Jamestown’s “Starving Time” is a noticeable shift from butchered deer, fish, and bird bones (1607-1608) to a faunal assemblage of squirrel, snake, rat, dog, and horse bone (1609-1610). In other words, when an archaeological layer is encountered with these species of butchered animal bone –all atypical to the 17th-century English diet– it typically indicates a period of stress, deprivation, and/or desperation.
While Jamestown’s settlers never celebrated a Thanksgiving of sorts, archaeologically-recovered animal remains suggest that large-scale feasting occurred on more than one occasion within the fort’s walls. To archaeologists, large quantities of the same species found in high bone or shell concentrations suggest an episode of feasting. To date, Jamestown Rediscovery has identified two major feasting events within the fort that follow this pattern. The first coincides with the arrival of Sir Thomas Gates after the Sea Venture shipwreck in Bermuda. Before reaching James Fort in May of 1610, Gates’ crew harvested a large quantity of oysters from Fort Algernon near the mouth of the James River to feed the starving colonists. Today, archaeologists find blankets of discarded oyster shell sitting atop 1609-1610 contexts, representing this oyster feast that ended Jamestown’s “Starving Time.” The second feasting event was uncovered in 2006 in the fill layers of James Fort’s second well. After the well was abandoned in April or May of 1611, faunal evidence in the well’s fill layers suggests that a large-scale pig feast took place. This corresponds with the documented arrival of a resupply ship in 1611, carrying some 200 pigs from England.
As these two feasting events demonstrate, oysters and ham have long been part of the food-based gatherings of Tidewater Virginia. Archaeologically, such feasts speak to both the best of times, and resolution to some of the worst of times. So while not a formal Thanksgiving, gatherings around oysters and ham might equally serve as a distinctively local flavor to giving thanks this time of year.