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Historic Jamestowne Archaeologists Discover 300-Year-Old Wine Cellar
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Historic Jamestowne Archaeologists Discover 300-Year-Old Wine Cellar

Thursday, August 5 2004

Wine Bottles Reovered from the Cellar
Jamestown, VA -- Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne in Virginia, recently 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.

"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.

Archaeologist Jamie May Excavates the Wine Cellar
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."

She said 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.

"Its like a bookend," Kelso said. "Weve been digging to find the beginning of Jamestown, and we may have found the end." After the capital moved to Williamsburg in 1699, Jamestown was gradually abandoned, fell into ruin and eventually became an agricultural area.

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.

APVA Preservation Virginia launched the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological research initiative in 1994 as their centerpiece contribution to the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. In 1996, they announced the discovery of the James Fort site, which was long believed to have washed away into river. During the past ten years, they've found more of the outline of the fort, the remains of palisade walls, bulwarks, interior and exterior buildings, wells and pits. They've also found over 500,000 artifacts most from the early years of the settlement, including the skeletal remains of several early settlers.

Visitors to Historic Jamestowne can see some of the wine bottles at the Dale House exhibit area and share the moment of discovery with archaeologists at the 1607 James Fort excavation. The cellar will be available for viewing for a limited time this summer, then it will be refilled with dirt to preserve the site.

Visitors can also tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church, take a walking tour with a park ranger through the original settlement along the scenic James River, "meet" a 17th-century personality, watch costumed glassblowers at the Glasshouse, and see a modest exhibit of artifacts and conservators at work in the Dale House. Driving tours explore the lush natural setting where exhibits explain how the settlers harnessed that wilderness for their needs. Visitors regularly see bald eagles, heron, osprey, deer and other wildlife. Museum stores are available at the Visitor Information Station and at the Dale House.

Historic Jamestowne, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America, is jointly administered by APVA Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service - Colonial National Historical Park. Admission to the site is $8.00 for adults; youth under age 17 are admitted free. Admission is valid for seven days. Historic Jamestowne is located at the western end of the Colonial Parkway. For additional information, call 757-229-1733 or 757-898-2410, or visit the internet at

Jamestown is the birthplace of the United States as it is known today, and a key part of the common history of the United States, England, other western European countries and Africa. Jamestown began in 1607 as a commercial enterprise that grew into a British colony. The first representative government in America was established here in 1619, and Jamestown was the first capital of Virginia until 1699. This is where America's current form of government, political traditions, culture and language began.

Note: The Jamestown Settlement museum located about a mile away, is administered by the Commonwealth of Virginia's Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation and requires separate admission. It offers a film, museum exhibits, and outdoor re-creations of a colonial fort, a Powhatan Indian village, and three ships like those that brought the settlers to Jamestown.

Press Contact:
Paula Neely
(804) 781-0116

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