Museum Highlights: Historic Jamestowne

Jamestown chevrons 2After looking at all these beads, a lot of you are probably wondering where you might be able to see all these beads, or at least examples of them. Archaeological beads are never terribly far away – nearly every museum has them, if you just know where to look. So I’m starting a new series of articles highlighting various museums, the exhibits you can find beads in (that I’ve seen), and how to get there – a sort of bead tourism, if you will.

The first place I’m going to talk about is one of if not the most important sites from the colonial era of the United States. You’ve probably heard a lot about it in the news recently because of the recent evidence for cannibalism.

Jamestown. Jamestown has a two main historical attractions: one is a recreation of the settlement that has interpreters acting as if they lived in Jamestown, and the other is the archaeological site itself. Here, I’m talking about the archaeological site, otherwise known as Historic Jamestowne (I admittedly haven’t been to the other in recent memory, so I’m unaware of the beads there, if any).

Looking at Historic Jamestowne, you may feel like there’s not much there – a park with some cool structures. But take one of the guided tours around (or just chat with some of the archaeologists digging near the fort) and you’ll get a whole different picture. I highly recommend the archaeology-themed tour, which will give you details of the history as well as the story of excavation at the site.

You won’t find any beads on the tour, though. Instead, once you’ve finished the tour (because the tour gives you the context of the site), head off to number 10 on the map: the Voorhees Archaearium Archaeology Museum.Wend your way through the exhibit – don’t just look at the beads, look at everything else, too!

Note: Flash photography is also prohibited throughout the museum. Please don’t use your flash at all in the exhibits. Photography is absolutely prohibited in the skeleton room. There is a Nueva Cadiz there, but please don’t take photos of it.

rawrenockJamestown has a fair number of beads. I don’t know exactly how many, but they have a fair amount. On display, you can see more than 2,000 rawenock beads, which are white beads cut from mussel shells. The term is eastern-Algonquian, and is said by some to be where Roanoke got its name.

Jamestown chevronsYou can also find chevron beads. I rarely see chevron beads, let alone large ones, but I also work in a time period that precedes chevrons by at least 400 years. For Jamestown’s time, I would agree with the display when it says relatively few large chevrons have been found there.

JamestownThere are a number of Nueva Cadiz beads. These are a lot like chevrons, in that they have layers of glass, but they only have 3 layers and are usually square. The layers are usually a dark blue core, a white middle, and a blue exterior that can be a darker cobalt blue or more of a turquoise color. The ends are often rounded to show the layers, but not to the same degree as chevrons.

The powder blue beads were a common trade bead at the time, and remind me of some I saw in Scotland. There are also some interesting melon beads and several that appear to be faceted rock crystal. I think the red stone beads may be carnelian and the deep red one a garnet, but I’m not an expert in stone and the description didn’t say.

As far as glass colours go, there doesn’t seem to be much variation besides blue, white, and clear. The chevrons have red in them, and there’s one red bead in the middle that might be glass, but that’s about it. I asked the guide about bead colours and he seemed to say they had yellow beads, but none of those seemed to be on display.

One reason these finds are great to see in a museum is that they’ve been in the ground near the ocean, and the subsequent wear patterns on the glass are good to see in person. I was also really happy to find glass that looked almost identical to some beads I had seen in Scotland, but were unprovenanced.

To get to Historic Jamestowne, get on I-64 in Virginia and take exit 242-A (Route 199) heading west towards Jamestown. Turn right at South Henry Street (second traffic light) to get onto the Colonial Parkway. Follow it straight to Historic Jamestowne’s Visitor Center, where you can park. Also, don’t forget to check out the glassblower either on your way in or out – just follow the signs!


About Heather Christie

Heather is an archaeologist, photographer, and writer whose research focuses on beads and bead trade, particularly in a maritime sense. She's currently working working on a PhD in Digital Design (focusing on heritage visualisation) at the Glasgow School of Art.
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