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Copper bits shed light on colonial life

Tiny squares of copper offer rare insight into how the Jamestown colonists in Virginia traded with Indians to survive.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Tiny squares of copper excavated from a trash heap link a 17th-century Indian village and the historic Jamestown settlement, and offer rare insight into how the English colonists survived, researchers said Monday.

The two pieces, each smaller than a fingertip, were the same kind of copper that the colonists used to trade for food with the Indians who lived in Kiskiak and prized the metal, researchers said.

The discovery at Yorktown Naval Weapons Station confirms the suspected location of Kiskiak on the York River and illuminates the critical role copper — and the village — had in the survival of the first permanent English settlement in America, archaeologist Dennis Blanton said.

A rare find for archaeologists
Archaeologists were surprised to find the copper, said Blanton, former director of the College of William and Mary Center for Archaeological Research. The copper was found by William and Mary archaeologists examining Indian sites on the military station.

“Tangible links to Jamestown had been a rare occurrence on Indian sites,” said Blanton, now head of archaeology at Virginia’s Shirley Plantation. “Copper is especially rare in the general debris.”

Copper was scarce before the English arrived, and “some scholars have written that English copper is what kept the English in the game and forestalled their annihilation by the Indians,” Blanton said.

Capt. John Smith of Jamestown, which was founded in 1607 as a business venture, wrote of the Indians that “for a coper (sic) kettle and a few toyes (sic) ... they will sell you a whole Country.”

Copper devalued
As more ships arrived from England, they brought more copper, and stepped-up trade diminished its value, scholars have said.

As a result, the Indians demanded other goods of greater value, such as weapons, in exchange for corn and security. The devaluation of copper explains why pieces would be found in a trash pit among broken pottery and other debris, Blanton said.

Carter C. Hudgins, an archaeologist with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, analyzed the chemical makeup of the copper pieces and concluded they are directly linked to Jamestown and European mines.

Kiskiak was one of about 30 minor chiefdoms that made up the domain of Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas and a powerful Indian chief who ruled more than 15,000 people from the tribes of coastal Virginia.