Sea Turtle Shell

Project details

  • Object number – 75361
  • Material – Bone
  • Place of Origin – possibly Bermuda
  • Date – Likely deposited 1610
  • Context – Structure 185, John Smith well
  • Location – Jamestown Vault
  • Category – Starving Time

This Green or possible Loggerhead Sea turtle (Cheloniidae) carapace was excavated from a feature believed to be James Fort’s first well. Located in the center of the fort, this well was likely dug in late 1608 or early 1609, and was filled with rubbish sometime before 1611. The huge variety of faunal remains excavated from this well, including butchered dog, horse, and bottlenose dolphin remains, and bones of the Bermudian cahow, frogs, snakes, squirrels, sturgeon, deer, woodchuck, and duck are indicative of the meager diet of the colony during the “Starving Time” winter of 1609-1610.

This sea turtle could have been brought to Virginia from Bermuda along with the Bermudian Cahow as provisions for survivors of the Sea Venture shipwreck. The well was likely filled in shortly after the arrival to the colony of the Sea Venture survivors led by Lord De La Warr on 10 June 1610. On 11 June 1610 De La Warr recorded the unloading of the ships and cleansing of the town occurring simultaneously: “I set the sailors awork to unlade ships and the landmen some to cleanse the town…”

This carapace was excavated in many fragments but was able to be mended back together in the lab. It measures 4 feet in diameter, and likely would have provided food for many people. Sea Turtle as a food source is commonly associated with individuals of higher status as a desirable elite food or for feasting-style situations, however it is unclear whether this sea turtle would have been consumed by individuals of a higher status in this context.

Lord Delaware “Letter to Salisbury, rec’d September 1610,” in Jamestown Narratives, ed. Haile, 466.