By Mark St. John Erickson, email@example.com | 757-247-4783
10:13 PM EDT, July 19, 2013
Archaeologists probing the early James Fort kitchen where they unearthed evidence of cannibalism this past year have discovered an earlier layer of artifacts showing that — just months before the Starving Time of 1609-10 — the colonists were filling their bellies with sturgeon.
Far denser and more concentrated than the scattered remains uncovered by the dig in the past, the thick deposit of armorlike scales known as scutes, pectoral fin spines and other bones may include more than 1,000 objects, senior archaeologist Danny Schmidt said Wednesday.
And the size and number of the individual animals identified from the remains so far shows that Capt. John Smith's seemingly extravagant descriptions of their abundance — including an early 1609 account reporting that the colonists had netted "more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog and man" — were no exaggeration.
"This is a very large dorsal scute, and — even though part of it is broken off — it appears to have been a lot bigger than anything we see today," said Virginia Commonwealth University sturgeon expert Matt Balazik, who examined and measured some of the Jamestown finds Wednesday afternoon.
"This was at least a 9-foot sturgeon — and probably bigger than that — because we don't have any way of knowing whether this was its largest scute."
Such mammoth fish were common in 1607, when Smith recorded hauling in catches of as many as 52 and 68 sturgeon at a time as well as individual animals measuring 2 and 3 yards in length.
So plentiful were the fish during the spring, in particular, that the delicacy reserved for the elite back in England became a seasonal staple of the Jamestown colonists' diet.
"These guys must have thought they were in heaven," said Jamestown Rediscovery project curator Bly Straube, describing the unexpectedly rich addition to the settlers' dining table.
"They were eating food normally reserved for royalty on a regular basis."
The American sturgeon proved to be giants, too, with the largest examples in this rich, newly discovered fishery often outclassing their overfished European cousins.
And compared to the average sturgeon from the much diminished and endangered population that is struggling to come back in the James River today, some of the individuals hauled in by Smith and the other colonists 400 years ago rank as monsters.
"This is a lateral scute from the dig — and it's just freakishly large. I've never seen one like it," said Balazik, who has studied the rare remaining fishery in the James for 10 years and even has a tattoo of one on his right forearm.
"With something like this you're looking at double digits when it comes to the length — and that's a realm that no one here has seen for a long, long time."
When they could, the colonists took full advantage of the sturgeon's abundance, not only hauling them in to cut up and eat fresh but also drying and pounding the meat for later consumption or as an ingredient that could be used in making bread.
That may be why the recently discovered deposit of scutes and bones was found strewn across the cellar floor of the fort's common kitchen just a few feet from two domed brick ovens.
"It's quite a dense concentration — with heavy amounts of sturgeon remains. We've never seen anything like it," Schmidt said.
"We're also finding some signs that they may have been cut up here and processed."
Despite this evidence of abundance, the sturgeon in the James were not a constant resource.
The seasonal nature of their spring and fall runs — which has only recently been rediscovered and studied by Balazik and his colleagues — soon added to the colonists' trials as they struggled to find food during the winter of 1609-10.
According to one account, the 14 nets that had proved so bountiful just months before rotted away after the settlement's amateur fishermen failed to dry and mend them.
Constant Indian attacks compounded the problem still more, making it all but impossible for the English to return safely after taking a boat out into the river.
The sturgeon fishery may have been affected by a prolonged period of severe drought, too, Balazik said, describing a dramatic increase in the salinity of the James that may have drawn the population far upstream from Jamestown Island.
"It's possible that instead of stopping here they went right by the island when the salt wedge moved," he said.
"And if that's the case the colonists would never have seen them."
Find more stories about Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history and Facebook.com/hrhistory.
Want to go?
James Fort archaeological site
Where: Historic Jamestowne, located on Jamestown Island at the west end of the Colonial Parkway
When: 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily, with public archaeology conducted on weekdays, weather permitting
Cost: $14 adults, children 15 and under free (includes admission to Jamestown Visitor Center, Historic Jamestowne sites and Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaerium)
Information: 757-856-1259; 757-229-4997 Ext. 100 or http://www.historicjamestown.org
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