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Werowocomoco

Seat of Power
Powhatan at Werowocomoco.

Powhatan at Werowocomoco. Detail from John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612.

Artifacts spanning 10,000 years from Werowocomoco – Virginia’s original “capital” city and the principal residence of Powhatan, paramount chief of 30-some Indian tribes in Virginia’s coastal region at the time English colonists arrived in 1607 – were shown for the first time in a museum setting in the Jamestown Settlement special exhibition “Werowocomoco: Seat of Power” from May 15, 2010, through June 30, 2011.

Archaeological research in the past decade revealed not only that the York River site was a uniquely important place during Powhatan’s time, but also that its role as a political and social center predated the Powhatan chiefdom.  The exhibition examined the relationship between material culture and political authority in the region from prehistoric times through the early years of the 17th century.

Developed in cooperation with the Werowocomoco site owners Robert F. and C. Lynn Ripley, the Werowocomoco Research Group and the Virginia Indian Advisory Board, the exhibition also explored what Werowocomoco means to descendent Virginia Indian communities today. The special exhibition was funded by a grant from James City County.

The exhibition featured more than 60 artifacts recovered archaeologically at Werowocomoco, including projectile points dating to the early Archaic period (6500 to 8000 B.C.) and late Woodland period (A.D. 900-1600) pottery shards, projectile points and stone tools, indicating an indigenous presence at Werowocomoco  thousands of years before the English arrived.

A selection of copper alloy fragments dating to the early 17th century also was on display, ranging from a rolled bead to sheets. The copper is of European manufacture and has a chemical composition similar to copper fragments found at Jamestown, site of America’s first permanent English settlement, offering evidence of trade between the Powhatan and English cultures.Archaeological excavations since 2001 have revealed the existence of a Native community at  Werowocomoco as early as 8000 B.C., followed by the development of a ceremonial and political center for Algonquian-speaking communities in the Chesapeake region by A.D. 1300 that would ultimately play an important role in the development of the Powhatan chiefdom.

English copper at Werowocomoco

A large quantity of copper recovered from the site is of European manufacture and has the same chemical composition as similar copper pieces found at Jamestown. Copper alloy pieces, shown here rolled into a bead and in a sheet, found at Werowocomoco, 17th century, Europe. Courtesy of Robert F. and C. Lynn Ripley.

The topography of Werowocomoco shows two large earthworks constructed upon a bluff on the York River that separate the community along the river from another defined location thought t o be used for high-status social and ceremonial functions. Also discovered at this location is a large structure that may be associated with the “Great King” Powhatan’s occupation, including a large quantity of copper fragments. These prominent features are an expression of how the cultural landscape symbolized power at  Werowocomoco.

A large quantity of copper recovered from the site is of European manufacture and has the same chemical composition as similar copper pieces found at Jamestown. Copper alloy pieces, shown here rolled into a bead and in a sheet, found at Werowocomoco, 17th century, Europe. Courtesy of Robert F. and C. Lynn Ripley.

The exhibition also explored the story of Captain John Smith’s journey to Werowocomoco, where Smith was held prisoner by Powhatan in 1607. Smith documented his experience among the Powhatan Indians at Werowocomoco in maps and writings, and in one later account claimed that it is the place where Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas saved him from death at her father’s hand. The exhibition featured a 1612 edition of John Smith’s Map of Virginia in the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection that shows Werowocomoco’s location and features an inset drawing of Powhatan.

The Werowocomoco archaeological site, located in Gloucester County about 20 miles from Jamestown, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Historic Landmarks Register.  Download the exhibition brochure to learn more.

View a three-minute video about Werowocomoco produced in partnership with WCVE Community Idea Stations.