Jamestown slate

slate Slate tablet found at Jamestown
Archaeologists have pulled a 400-year-old slate tablet from what they think was an original well at Jamestown, a historic preservation group announced yesterday.
The slate is covered with faint inscriptions of local birds, flowers, a tree and caricatures of men, along with letters and numbers, according to Preservation Virginia, which jointly operates the dig site with the National Park Service. It was found May 11 at the center of James Fort, which was established in 1607 and makes Jamestown the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Research director William Kelso said the inscriptions were made with a slate pencil on the 4-inch-by-8-inch slate. The writings were wiped off, but they left grooves on the surface, he said.
“There were things written over things, written over things,” Kelso said.
Workers at NASA’s Langley Research Center put the slate through three-dimensional digital analysis so they could decipher its pictures and text. The imaging system normally is used to inspect materials for aerospace use.
An eagle and a heron appeared on the slate, along with three types of plants, which haven’t been identified. A depiction of lions — the British armorial sign in the early 1600s — indicates that the writer could have been a government official, Kelso said.
The phrase “A minon of the finest sorte” also appears on the slate, and Kelso said “minon” may have been an alternate spelling of “minion,” possibly referring to a cannon or a servant.
The artifact shows the high level of interest the English settlers had in the New World’s flora and fauna, Kelso said. The archaeology team thinks that someone probably started the artwork and writing in England and added to the slate over time after arriving in the new colony of Virginia.
The archaeologists think a colonist deposited the tablet into what’s believed to be the “well of sweet water” built by Captain John Smith during the winter of 1608-09, according to Preservation Virginia. Historic records indicate that the water had gone bad by 1610 and might have contributed to numerous settlers’ deaths during what was known as the “starving time” of 1609-10.
Archaeologists dated the slate based on the site’s history and the discovery of coins dated 1601-02 among the items. Colonists used the well as a trash pit after the water became fouled, Kelso said. Records show it was covered up in 1611 until archaeologists began to find 17th-century objects at the site recently.

More about Jamestown and its English connections

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4 comments on “Jamestown slate

  1. pamwalter2 says:

    Any speculation as to why “There were things written over things, written over things,” ? http://www.satisfiedsole.com

  2. saesferd says:

    I have not read anywhere any speculation as to why the slate is a palimpsest, pamwalter2. Possibly, in much the same way as Roman wax-coated tablets were written on, then smoothed for reuse, or valuable parchment was scraped and overwritten in the past,a robust slate is recyclable. As the archaeologists suggest that the slate work may have been started in England, resources for making writing materials might have been quite scarce or not a priority for those setting up Jamestown at that time. A piece of slate could have been an economic way of making rough draughts and notes without wasting those valuable resources and time.

  3. Katherine says:

    I have slate tablets that belonged to members of my family. These are left over from their years in school. Paper was a luxury so they used these framed slates with a slate “pencil.” One has images scratched in it by some careless child, but the others were well cared for. I like the slate marker better than chalk because it makes a finer mark and isn’t dusty like chalk. These are still in use in some schools in the USA.

  4. saesferd says:

    Slates like this, Katherine? It must be nice to keep a little bit of precious family history. I would imagine that many slates got broken and discarded – the school ones were quite thin.
    I must admit, when I first read the article about the Jamestown slate, I immediately thought of school slates and pencils.

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