In July of 2004 Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne uncovered a brick-lined cellar filled with 300-year-old intact glass wine bottles. One of the bottles bears a personal seal that may have belonged to a former Virginia governor. Visitors to Historic Jamestowne can see some of the wine bottles at the Dale House exhibit area. The cellar will be available for viewing for a limited time this summer, then it will be refilled with dirt to preserve the site.
"This is one of the earliest wine cellars discovered in America," said William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation Virginia). The cellar was uncovered as APVA Preservation Virginia archaeologists continued their ongoing excavation and analysis of the 1607 James Fort site and the remains of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
Ten onion-shaped glass bottles, made in England between 1680 and 1700, were found intact, clustered upright on the dirt floor near one wall of the 8 x 20 ft., rectangular cellar. Based on the other bottle fragments that were found, archaeologists estimate that there may have been as many as 30 wine bottles stored there.
Beverly A. Straube, APVA curator, said it is very rare to find intact containers at an archaeological site. "What's really neat about this is finding so many of them intact, and still in their original context," she said. "We're the first people to see these bottles in more than 300 years. It's like looking at a snapshot in time."
Bits and pieces of broken, discarded objects are usually found in trash pits, she explained, or items are broken when buildings fall into ruin and are disturbed by newer construction or farming.
It's also significant that one of the intact bottles bears a glass seal with the initials FN embossed on it, which indicates that it belonged to someone of considerable wealth and status. During the 17th century, it was customary for high-ranking gentlemen to order wine bottles from England stamped with their personal seal.
Straube said it may be the seal of Francis Nicholson, the governor of Virginia from 1698 to 1705. Nicholson also served as the lieutenant governor of Virginia from 1690 to 1692, and documents indicate that he visited Virginia in 1697 when he was governor of Maryland. He moved the capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg in 1699 after the last Jamestown statehouse burned in 1698.
She said it's possible that Nicholson may have lived in this building, because there was no official governor's house when he took office, and he had to rent housing. It is also possible that he visited the house and brought a bottle of wine with him for dinner, or he may have given the owners wine in his personal bottle as a gift.
"Apparently there was a law in 1636 that made it illegal to sell wine in bottles," Straube said. "This encouraged individuals to have private bottles made which they then took to an importer who filled them with wine from a cask."
Most of the wine from this period came from Spain and was primarily the drink of the upper class. Others drank beer and ale. Types of wine available to the colonists included claret, sack, sherry, Canary, Malaga and Tent (red wine).
Kelso speculated that the bottles were probably used for wine, however, none of the bottles had corks or liquid remaining in them, and they may have been empty when they were stored in the cellar. He has also seen colonial "wine" bottles used for storing milk and even cherries.
The cellar was discovered earlier this summer as archaeologists were excavating a building site from the early 1600s, inside the 1607 James Fort archaeological site. It is part of a late-1600s building that was built at right angles across the ruins of the earlier building site. Archaeologists also found diamond-shaped window glass and a small section of window lead, which bears the date 1693, associated with the building that may indicate that this was the home of a wealthy family who lived at Jamestown near the end of the 17th century.
In mid-July, field school students participating in a six-week summer program, began removing the brick rubble above the cellar and excavated the dirt that had filled the cellar over the past three centuries.
They discovered the necks of the bottles toward the end of a work day, but they waited until the next day to uncover them so that the bottles would not be harmed. The following day they worked until late in the evening to complete the excavation and removed the bottles so that they could be conserved and safely stored.
The broken remains of an English delftware chamber pot, a pewter spoon, a bone-handled knife and several clay pipes were also uncovered on the bottom of the cellar and will be researched to help archaeologists determine more precisely when the building was in use.