Topic: Jamestown Ovens
The ovens, excavated in an early colonial cellar, open another window on the first successful English colony in America.
Archaeologists at the early 17th century English colonial site of Jamestown in Virginia have been steadily unearthing a 25-foot-long L-shaped cellar located inside the enclosed area of the original “footprint” of the 1607 James Fort, uncovering two remarkably well preserved brick ovens that show evidence of extensive use before they were abandoned to time.
“These are some of the most intact ovens we’ve ever excavated here at Jamestown,” said archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson.
What is more, they seem to have retained features that would, at least theoretically, permit a person today to use the ovens for baking. According to senior staff archaeologist Danny Schmidt, “these two now we could fire right up today” . In addition to the brickwork constituting their foundations, they feature roofs that remain partly intact, almost as they may have been left by the early colonists.
More significant still, particularly for archaeologists, is what was left behind in and around the ovens, which may answer questions about how they were used and their significance within the context in which they were found. “We’ve got a good deposit on the floor from during their usage. Excavating that occupation layer will be the payoff to help us answer that,” said Dr. William M. Kelso, who leads archaeological research at Historic Jamestown under the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project. 
Examination of the framing arch on at least one oven suggests that it had a wooden door about 2 inches thick. Why a wooden door, which could easily burn? According to Kelso, a person could start the oven fire with the door open, then remove the coals and place food inside once the oven interior had reached the appropriate temperature, and then immediately close the door to contain the heat inside for the baking process.
Two similar ovens, determined to have been used for baking bread, were discovered in 2007 in a blacksmith shop/bakery cellar at another location within the Fort space, but these cellars were found much less intact.
Dec 14, 2022
There is also interesting information at a site devoted to Jamestown.
The Dig: December 2012–Historic Jamestowne
Where are We Digging Now?
Sturgeon Scutes in Front of the East Oven in Structure 191The sturgeon bones layered across the floor of the L-shaped cellar illuminate how important the river was as a source of food for early James Fort colonists.
Much has been written about Captain John Smith’s negotiations with the Powhatan Indians for corn, but we know that in 1608-09 the colonists were also working with sturgeon.
Sturgeon have long bodies, no scales, and can grow to 12 feet in length. They are bottom-feeders in the rivers and coastline of North America, spawning in fresh water and then feeding in the brackish waters of estuaries.
Smith mentions sturgeon early in the colony’s story: “From May to September , those that escaped lived upon sturgeon and sea crabs” but by the fall “was all our provision spent, the sturgeon gone, all help abandoned. . . .”
VCU Ichthyologist Matthew Balazik with a Live SturgeonVirginia Commonwealth University ichthyologist Matthew Balazik said spring run adult sturgeon usually enter James River in late March and leave by June and some fall spawning Atlantic sturgeon can be in the river from late July to early October. He has studied sturgeon remains from early Jamestown and published a report in 2010 showing sturgeon from that era grew more slowly than sturgeon today, which may reflect today’s lower population density or higher water temperatures.
Balazik visited the L-shaped cellar December 14 and was excited to see the evidence of sturgeon from which he could estimate that they were between five and eight feet long. The sturgeon pieces are scattered on the floor near one of two brick ovens in the L-shaped cellar.
Smith wrote that in early 1609, “We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man, of which the industrious by drying and pounding, mingled with caviar, sorrel, and other wholesome herbs, would make bread and good meat. Others would gather as much tockwhogh roots in a day as would make them bread a week, so that those wild fruits and what we caught we lived very well in regard of such a diet.”
But when Samuel Argall arrived with two supply ships in July, he found many of the colonists hungry because they refused to sow their own crops. Many settlers had been “dispersed in the savages towns, living upon their alms for an ounce of copper a day,” and even Smith admitted that “our necessities was such as enforced us to take” the fish, wine, and biscuits onboard Argall’s ships.
Part of Argall’s mission was to find out how good the fishing was in the waters off Virginia’s coast. Fish were a valuable commodity to the English: their ships had been fishing off Newfoundland for decades before Jamestown was founded.
In the cellar, the Jamestown colonists may have been processing sturgeon for the home market. Sturgeons and whales are actually royal fish in England. According to a law enacted by Edward II (who reigned 1307 to 1327) they are the personal property of the monarch when caught and brought to English shores.
Argall returned to England and reported favorably. “[F]or fishing proved so plentiful, especially of sturgeon, of which sort he could have loaded many ships if he had had some man of skill to pickle and prepare it for keeping, whereof he brought sufficient testimony both of the flesh and caviary, that no discreet man will question the truth of it.”
That fall, the Jamestown colonists did not take care of the seasonal nature of the sturgeon food supply. A mysterious gunpowder explosion sent Smith back to England in November 1609, and the arguing factions he left behind in James Fort did not prepare well for the coming winter.
Colony Secretary William Strachey wrote of this time, “There is a great store of fish in the river, especially of sturgeon, but our men provided no more of them than for present necessity, not barreling up any store against that season the sturgeon returned to the sea. And not to dissemble their folly, they suffered 14 nets (which was all they had) to rot and spoil which by orderly drying and mending might have been preserved. But being lost, all help of fishing perished.”
That winter of 1609-10 became known as “The Starving Time.” Almost three-fourths of the colonists inside the fort died, and that spring the colony came within a few days of being abandoned. It appears that by June of 1610 the L-shaped cellar now being explored by the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists was no longer in use.
The cellar is 25 feet long and aligns with James Fort’s first well, which sits 10 feet away to the west and at the same angle.