Ray Mouthplates

Project details

  • Object number – Various
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin – James River
  • Date –
  • Context – James Fort
  • Location – Archaearium
  • Category – Featured Finds

More than 200 of these mouthplates from skates or rays (Order Rajiformes) have been found during excavations of James Fort. These plates are used to crush mollusks such as clams, oysters, and mussels. The cartilaginous fish we call rays are typically found in deep ocean waters, but there are some species of rays that prefer shallow freshwater environments. These skates or rays would have been caught by the colonists when fishing with nets east of Jamestown Island, where the higher salinity levels are more favorable to these particular species. (Today they are often caught by accidentally in Virginia waters by fishermen but are usually not kept for food.)

Stingrays, “whose tailes are very dangerous,” are described by Captain John Smith as one of the fish the colonists “were best acquainted with.” Smith became very well acquainted with one stingray in 1608 while spearing fish with his sword during explorations of the Chesapeake Bay. As he removed one strange fish “with a long tail like a riding rod” from his sword, the ray “struck into the wrist of his arm near an inch and a half.” The extremely painful wound caused Smith’s body to swell, and death seemed inevitable. At Smith’s direction, the men with him prepared a grave on a nearby island; but, luckily for Smith, there was a physician in the exploratory party. Doctor Russell applied “a precious oil” to the wound and eased Smith’s pain so much that he was able to eat the stingray for dinner. To commemorate the event, the colonists dubbed the island “Stingray Isle,” and the area in present-day Deltaville, VA, is still known as Stingray Point. The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have also found a stingray tail at James Fort; could it be the same one that stuck Smith?