Posts Tagged ‘sturgeon’


Preservation Virginia Archaeologist Danny Schmidt uses a trowel to point at a cluster of scutes in the floor of the common kitchen. (Photo by Brittany Voll/WYDaily)

Topic: Jamestowne find

Archaeologists at James Fort are finding the remains of dozens of sturgeon in the same cellar they discovered “Jane”, the 14-year-old cannibalism victim.

The sturgeon scutes, which are pieces of pyramid-shaped bone covered in pores that line sturgeon bodies, are evidence the settlers brought the large fish into this kitchen pit, a room dug into the ground about 5 feet deep. The kitchen pit was about 50-100 feet away from the water, and sturgeon of that time weighed up to 800 pounds compared to the average 300 pounds of the endangered sturgeon swimming in the James River today.

The latest discovery shows the scutes in the common kitchen were deposited while the kitchen was still in use.

To date, the largest deposit of scutes at Historic Jamestowne had been found in the John Smith well, merely feet from where the current scutes are being discovered. Thousands of scutes were found in the well, which had been filled with trash, to account for at least 34 different sturgeon.

Dr. Matthew Balazik, a post-graduate researcher at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Inger and Walter Rice Center for Environmental Economics, is confident the number of sturgeon represented by the scutes found in the kitchen will be at least the same number found in the well, but will likely exceed it.

Balazik, who has been called the “sturgeon whisperer,” is now working with Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists to determine additional information on the new sturgeon scutes. Balazik previously worked with the archaeological team on the bones found in the well.

Continued excavation of the L-shaped cellar that provided a final resting place to “Jane” led to the latest discovery. At Historic Jamestowne, Jane’s remains were discovered among a trash pile, which was established in a common kitchen area after the kitchen was no longer used, likely in the spring of 1610, according to Preservation Virginia Senior Staff Archaeologist Daniel Schmidt.

Dr. Matt Balazik holds onto a sturgeon in the James River on a recent tagging expedition. (Photo by Martin Balazik)

Now that the trash layers have been removed, archaeologists are uncovering the layers from the time the kitchen was in use, likely in 1609. The scutes are littering the kitchen floor in high numbers. The walls that establish the current pit as they wait to be excavated further also show a number of scutes.

“What we have here is basically a layer of sturgeon remains,” Schmidt said.

On two sides of the kitchen are large brick ovens; once excavated they’ll be igloo-shaped cavities. Covering the floor of the kitchen are a layer of ash and the sturgeon scutes, as well as pieces of pottery and a few cannon balls.

Along with scutes, pieces of bone called fin spines, which connects fins to a fish body similar to a human shoulder, have been found.

The spines can be cut to reveal a number of rings that tell how old the fish was, just like tree rings.

“These are like gold,” Balazik said.

A sturgeon only has two of the shoulder-like spine bones.

Additionally, a piece of bone from near the sturgeon throat has been found. It has not yet been excavated but is visible in the top layer of dirt in the kitchen floor. Unlike the completely porous scutes, the throat bone has a porous section below a smoother semi-circle shaped section of bone. Because of the location on the fish’s body, it’s likely the sturgeon were being butchered in the kitchen.

On some of the scutes found in the kitchen, burnt sections or ash is found. At this point, it’s unclear why the sturgeon were being butchered in the kitchen, especially when considering the length and weight of the fish.

Balazik has found scutes of modern James River sturgeon, the largest of which was belonged to an eight-foot sturgeon.

In the scutes excavated so far, the size of a piece of a lateral scute – a scute that would have run down the side of the sturgeon — has led Balazik to believe it was from a female fish that was a little more than 11 feet long and likely weighed 450-500 pounds.

“That’s a realm we’ve never seen,” Balazik said. He explained the lateral scute piece, which is about 4 inches long, may not have been the biggest scute that was on the fish.

Writing from John Smith indicate the sturgeon were a staple for settlers, primarily in 1607 and 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,” Smith wrote in early 1609.

Schmidt thinks the scutes being found are from the fall of 1609, the time that led into the Starving Time—the winter of 1609-10 when Jane was cannibalized by the settlers. Balazik will hopefully be able to determine whether the scutes are from the spring or fall.

Sturgeon “run” – return from the ocean to spawn– in spring and fall; they weren’t around in the winter to allay starvation during the winter of 1609-10. Also, because the fish were so large and are covered in bony scutes rather than slippery scales, the settlers’ nets weren’t ideal for catching them. Written records show the fishing nets had rotted away by the time Lord De La Warr, Thomas West, arrived at the fort at the end of the Starving Time.

Original article:

July 18, 2013 By Brittany Voll



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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.[1]

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” [1]. 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. [1]

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.
Original article:
popular archaeology
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 [1607], 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.

Original article:
historic Jamestown



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