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Daily Life in Early Jamestown—What is the Evidence?


By the time the first English colonists arrived in Virginia, the region had been occupied by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Much of what historians know about daily life in James Fort and in the surrounding Powhatan Indians villages comes from the writings of the English colonists. These documents offer limited information about life in early 1600s Virginia—and they present a heavily biased view of Virginia Indians. Obtaining a more complete understanding of life in early Jamestown requires additional sources of information, including archaeological artifacts. In this lesson, students examine written sources and artifact evidence to determine what they reveal about the lives of the Jamestown colonists and the Powhatan Indians.



Before beginning the lesson, make a transparency of the James Fort Artifact. One copy of the Jamestown Artifact Cards, the Jamestown Primary Source Quotations, and one Jamestown Artifact Cards Sorting Mat will be needed for each group. Optional: You may also find it helpful for group discussions to have overhead transparencies of both the Jamestown Artifact Cards and Jamestown Primary Source Quotation Cards.

1. Conduct a class discussion using the following questions:

  • Have you ever lost anything?
  • Did you find it? If so, how?
  • Do you think that the colonists in the 1600s lost things they never recovered?
  • Do you think we could find those things today? If so, how?

Define the term "archaeology." Briefly describe how archaeologists do their work. If desired, the "Archaeology 101" PowerPoint presentation provided at the Historic Jamestowne Web site may be used.

2. Explain that since 1994, archaeological excavations at the site of the 1607 James Fort have revealed over one million artifacts that were last used by the Jamestown colonists nearly four hundred years ago. Careful examination of these artifacts is helping archaeologists to learn what daily life was like in the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Display a transparency of the James Fort Artifact. Do not reveal its identity/use to students. Conduct a class discussion in which students attempt to identify the artifact and how it was used in the 1600s. Guide the discussion by using questions such as:

  • What do you think the artifact is made of?
  • How might the artifact have been used?
  • Do we use anything similar today?
  • What questions does this artifact bring to mind?

So… what is it? Inform students that the artifact is an ear picker. Written records indicate that specialized tools were used to clean fingernails, teeth, and ears. An ear picker would have been a very familiar object to most English men and women in the 1600s. The pointed end was used to clean teeth and nails, and the spoon-shaped end was used to remove earwax. Because this ear picker is made of silver it would have been an expensive status symbol, and the owner may have displayed it on a chain hung around the neck or attached to a belt at the waist. Without the information provided by thorough research, this artifact might have remained a mystery!

3. Divide the class into teams or small groups. Give each group one set of Jamestown Artifact Cards and a Jamestown Artifact Cards Sorting Mat. Give groups approximately 10 minutes to examine each artifact and place it in either the "English Colonists" or "Powhatan Indians" column of the Sorting Mat. [NOTE: As students examine the artifact, they should discuss their reasons for placing them in a particular column. Also, they should place the cards on their Sorting Mats, but not glue them down.]

4. Ask students if sorting the artifact cards was easy or difficult. Did they have any disagreements within their groups? If there were disagreements, pursue the reasons why. [NOTE: Highlight for students that similar differences of opinion also arise among archaeologists and historians.] As a class, discuss each artifact and arrive at a consensus regarding its placement on the Sorting Mat. If students believe that an artifact may have been used by both English colonists and Powhatan Indians, allow them to place the artifact card on the line between the columns. Have students glue the artifact cards to their Sorting Mats.

5. Give each group a copy of the Jamestown Primary Source Quotations. Have students read the quotations, match each quotation to an archaeological artifact on their Sorting Mats, and write the name of the artifact next to the appropriate quotation on their Jamestown Primary Source Quotations sheet. [NOTE: If the quotations are deemed too difficult for students to read, consider placing them on the overhead, reading them aloud to students, and then having the groups complete the rest of the activity on their own.]

As a class, discuss each quotation. Which archaeological artifact does each quotation support? Why? What information does each quotation and its matching artifact reveal about the daily lives of the Powhatan Indians and/or the Jamestown colonists in the early 1600s?

6. Conclude the lesson by reminding students that archaeologists use all available information to learn about life in the past. Archaeological artifacts tell an important part of the story, but careful research of the written records is also required. Only after the artifacts and the research are examined together—and careful, thoughtful interpretation is applied—are archaeologists able to accurately describe life in the past.


This lesson was written by Martha Berner, retired elementary school teacher, San Diego, CA; Rachel Hull, elementary school teacher, Buffalo, WV; and Jodi Norman, educational media editor, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA.
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