These circular globs of glass are wine bottle seals, which would have been attached to a wine bottle by the bottle maker as a final step in the manufacturing process. They are impressed with a variety of seals that can include a mark, an armorial crest, a name, or initials representing a specific individual, a tavern or inn, or a merchant. Bottle seals also occasionally include a date, making them a helpful find on archaeological sites. The earliest bottle seal which can be securely attributed to a known individual was found in London, and dates to 1652. While bottle seals have been found in earlier contexts, their marks have not yet been securely attributed to a patron, lending some mystery to their origin and true date of manufacture. In addition to indicating ownership of the wine, bottle seals served as a status symbol. Wine itself was expensive, and wine held in glass bottles even more so. Even when glass bottles became more commonplace containers for wine, marked wine bottles remained considerably more expensive than unmarked bottles. Bottle seals became more common in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, making them relatively rare finds at Jamestown.
Only nine wine bottle seals have been found in excavations by Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists since 1994. One of these is miraculously still attached to its complete wine bottle. Only five different seal designs are represented on the site. Unfortunately, the majority of the wine bottle seals have been recovered from mixed contexts, meaning they are hard to date with certainty. In this case, research into who may be associated with the initials is important to understanding when the wine these seals once marked was present in Virginia.
|Likely Ralph Wormley
|Likely ca. 1636-1651
|The earliest wine bottle seals were produced by using separate metal matrices to create a seal with multiple initials. Two of the bottle seals in the Jamestown collection, which date around the mid-seventeenth century, include the separately-impressed initials R W, indicating that the wine bottles were made to order for Ralph Wormley, a member of the governor’s council. Two intact bottles found in London with this mark are likely the earliest wine bottles that can be attributed to a specific owner.
|Maybe Thomas Osborne
|Maybe ca. 1620-1637
|One other wine bottle seal in the Jamestown collection was made using multiple matrices. It includes the letter O above a T and an A. It is unclear whose initials these are, although they could be associated with Thomas Osborne who came to Virginia in August 1620. Osborne patented land in Henrico County in 1637.
|Lewis Burwell II
|Three of the wine bottle seals include markings which are known as Merchants Marks. Made with a single matrix, these often include an elongated 4-square. The term “Merchants Mark” in this case simply references the style of the mark, not a reference to the manufacturer. The three bottle seals in the Jamestown collection with this style include the initials LB, associating this mark with Lewis Burwell II. Burwell was a socially and politically well-connected Virginian. He was born in 1651 or 52, and died in 1710, indicating that wine bottle seals associated with him likely date from about 1670-1710. By 1704, Burwell was one of the wealthiest landowners in Virginia. In that year he paid taxes in multiple counties in Virginia, on a total of 26,650 acres of property. It is likely that his wine bottle seals came to be at Jamestown through Burwell’s service and socialization with politically involved friends in and around the Statehouse, which was a building in use from 1663-1698. The context in which these wine bottle seals were found further narrows their date of import and use to ca. 1670-1698.
|Two of the bottle seals in the Jamestown collection, including the one still attached to a complete wine bottle, are associated with Francis Nicholson. They are slightly different from each other stylistically, so perhaps they marked two different shipments of wine, or two different types of wine. Nicholson served as Virginia’s lieutenant governor from 1690 – 92, and then as the governor from 1698 – 1705. The complete bottle with marked seal was found in 2004 in a cellar which may have been rental property for Francis Nicholson in the early 1690’s as he awaited the construction of the governor’s residence. Read more about the collection of wine bottles, including the intact bottle with bottle seal, found in that cellar here.
|Francis Lightfoot Lee
|Finally, one wine bottle seal in the Jamestown collection, recovered in May 2019 includes the initials FL. These letters are believed to be those of Francis Lightfoot Lee. Prominent Virginian and Signer of the Declaration, Lee was known as Frank to his friends and associates. He was born in Westmoreland County in 1734, and raised at Stratford Hall. His mother, Hannah Harrison Ludwell Lee, grew up near Jamestown at Greensprings Plantation and his grandparents were buried in the Jamestown Churchyard, both before he was born. The seal may be evidence of a visit by Frank Lee to his grandparents’ graves while he served in the Virginia House of Burgesses in Williamsburg from 1765 until 1775.