- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 9, 2009

RICHMOND | Archaeologists have pulled a 400-year-old slate tablet from what they think was an original well at the first permanent English settlement in North America, a historic preservation group announced Monday.

The slate at Jamestown 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 along the James River in eastern Virginia.

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,” Mr. Kelso said.

Researchers at NASA Langley 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 yet been identified.

A depiction of lions - the British armorial sign in the early 1600s - indicates that the writer could have been a government official, Mr. Kelso said.

The phrase “A minon of the finest sorte” also appears on the slate, and Mr. Kelso said “minon” may have been an alternate spelling of “minion,” possibly referring to a cannon, slave or servant.

The artifact shows the high level of interest the English settlers had in the New World’s flora and fauna, Mr. 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 thought to be the “well of sweet water” built by Capt. John Smith during the winter of 1608-1609, 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 1609-1610.

Archaeologists dated the slate based on the site’s history and the discovery of coins dated 1601-1602 among the items.

Colonists used the well as a trash pit after the water became fouled, Mr. Kelso said, and records show it was covered up in 1611 until archaeologists began to find 17th-century objects at the site last fall.

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