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Center of Powhatan Chiefdom Explored in 'Werowocomoco: Seat of Power' Exhibition Opening May 15 at Jamestown Settlement


WILLIAMSBURG, Va., April 2010 — Artifacts 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 – will be featured in the Jamestown Settlement special exhibition “Werowocomoco: Seat of Power,” opening May 15.

 Powhatan at Werowocomoco-John Smith 1612 Map of Virginia.jpg
Powhatan at Werowocomoco, detail from John Smith’s Map of Virginia, 1612, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.


The six-month exhibition, the first time artifacts from the Werowocomoco site will be displayed in a museum setting, will continue through November 15, 2010.  Jamestown Settlement is a museum of 17th-century Virginia operated by the state’s Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. 

Archaeological research in the past decade has 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 will examine 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 will explore what Werowocomoco means to descendent Virginia Indian communities today.  The special exhibition is funded by a grant from James City County. 

The exhibition will feature 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 will be 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.

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 to 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.

Werowocomoco’s cultural landscape will be compared with other American Indian settlements that feature ceremonial spaces and monumental architecture, including Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Representing American Indian ceremonial practices are Chaco Canyon Black-on-White painted pottery, including two effigy vessels, and a late Woodland mask made of a bear bone from the Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell County, Virginia. 

The exhibition also will explore 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 will feature 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. The findings at Werowocomoco were featured the May 2007 issue of National Geographic magazine and in a PBS/NOVA documentary “Pocahontas Revealed.”

In conjunction with the special exhibition and in partnership with the Virginia Indian community, Jamestown Settlement will present “Virginia Indian Heritage Day” on June 26, during which panel discussions will address the importance of Werowocomoco and the history of the Powhatan Indians. The day also will feature presentations of Virginia Indian intertribal dancing and drumming.

Jamestown Settlement, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, until 6 p.m. June 15 through August 15, is located southwest of Williamsburg on Route 31 at the Colonial Parkway next to Historic Jamestowne, site of the 1607 English settlement.  Jamestown Settlement general admission of $14.00 for adults and $6.50 for ages 6 through 12 includes admission to the special exhibition.  

Permanent museum exhibits include expansive exhibition galleries and outdoor re-creations of an early 17th-century Powhatan Indian village, the three ships that brought America’s first permanent English colonists to Virginia in 1607 and a 1610-14 colonial fort.

For more information about the museum, call (888) 593-4682 toll-free or (757) 253-4838. To see a video about Werowocomoco, visit https://jyfmuseums.org/werowocomoco.htm.