Pocahontas' Earrings Go On Show At Museum In Docklands

By David Prudames | 10 June 2005
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Shows a photograph of a pair of earrings made from mussel shells. In the background and out of focus a female curator is looking at them, leaning on a pair of white-gloved hands.

Bly Straube, curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery project in the USA, stands guard beside Pocahontas' earrings. Courtesy Museum in Docklands.

A pair of earrings traditionally considered to have been worn by Pocahontas has gone on display at the Museum in Docklands.

The earrings will be on show until July 7 2005 alongside a number of artefacts unearthed at the site of the 17th century Jamestown settlement in Virginia, USA. They’ve been brought over to mark the start of celebrations for the 400th anniversary in 2007 of the first permanent English colony.

David Spence, director of the Museum in Docklands, said the display is a chance for the public to make a tangible link with a much-mythologised character.

"When I said to my daughter we’ve got Pocahontas’ earrings she said 'what, is she real?' So this is actually an opportunity for someone that people know to come alive," he told the 24 Hour Museum.

Shows a painting of Pocahontas in 17th century English attire.

Pocahontas - a portrait after an engraving made by 17th century society portraitist Simon van de Passe. Courtesy Museum in Docklands.

It’s a chance, he added, for the museum "to actually say, these stories are based on reality and here’s the evidence. Disney did us a huge favour and now our bit is to tell people the true story behind it."

As every fan of feature-length animation knows, Pocahontas was the ‘Indian Princess’ who saved Jamestown settler Captain John Smith from death and married his compatriot John Rolfe in 1616 before coming to England a celebrity. She was granted an audience with King James and Queen Charlotte, had her portrait engraved and was eventually buried in Gravesend.

The image of this ‘noble savage’ was a popular one and her name quickly passed into folklore. However, there are few artefacts that provide a direct and tangible connection to her. Apart, that is, from her earrings.

Shows a photograph of a pair of earrings made out of mussel shells.

Did these earrings grace the ears of one Pocahontas? Courtesy Museum in Docklands.

It’s not known whether the hefty pearls really dangled from Pocahontas’ ears or not, but for Bly Straube, curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery project in the USA, the circumstantial evidence provides a decent case.

To start with pearls were often worn by Native American nobility, yet this pair has silver rims with steel point inlays, which suggests they were set in England. However, we do know that while imprisoned in the Tower of London the Earl of Northumberland repaired some earrings for Pocahontas.

"In 1866 a new bride of the Rolfe family was presented with them," Bly told the 24 Hour Museum, "and told that they were handed down through the generations and had been Pocahontas’ earrings."

Shows a photograph of a silver ear picker for cleaning teeth and ears. At one end is a sharp point, at the other a spoon and in the middle an ornamental fish.

A silver ear picker used for cleaning teeth and ears, unearthed at the James Fort archaeological site. Courtesy APVA Preservation Virginia.

Made out of mussel shells and silver, they were exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in the late 19th century and purchased by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in around 1948.

However, they are among a host of fascinating artefacts associated with the Jamestown settlement to go on show at Docklands: "For the first time we are seeing archaeology that tells us about London as well as about America coming back to London." explained David Spence.

Jamestown was first settled in 1607 at the behest of the Virginia Company when three ships were sent across the Atlantic in search of natural resources with which to trade.

Shows a photograph of a translucent arrowhead made out of quartz.

Found in James Fort, quartz crystal points like these were probably never used as arrow heads but may represent arrows the colonists say they received as gifts from the natives. Courtesy APVA Preservation Virginia.

In the past historians have written off the settlement as a failure destroyed by disease and starvation. But excavations in recent years are leading archaeologists to re-appraise it and celebrations in 2007 will see it recognised as the first permanent English colony and the birthplace of the USA as we know it.

The case of objects on display at the Museum in Docklands is a tiny percentage of the 750,000 artefacts unearthed at the site, but it offers a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of those who lived there.

One item in particular stands out: a pewter flagon found down a well inside James Fort. The well dates to the 1620s and the flagon was probably lost while being used to collect water, but bearing the initials P R E under the thumb piece, it’s an irresistible connection to known colonists Richard and Elizabeth Pierce.

Shows a photograph of the thumb piece of a pewter flagon, which bears the initials P R E.

The pewter flagon discovered down a well that dates back to the 1620s. Courtesy APVA Preservation Virginia.

Such connections to settlers will make up an expanded exhibition the museum is planning as part of the cross-Atlantic celebrations in 2007. For David Spence it’s the personalities involved and the links artefacts provide to them that really fire the imagination.

"What we are really interested in are the people behind the objects," he said. "We know the names and we can piece together their lives, giving us a way of bringing them to life."

For more information about the Jamestown settlement and archaeological excavations at the site, visit www.historicjamestowne.org.

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