January 23rd, 2010
The news reports that a rare 400-year-old slate tablet was discovered this past summer at Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America. With the help of enhanced imagery and an expert in Elizabethan script, archaeologists are beginning to unravel the meaning of the mysterious text and images etched into this tablet.
Various enhancements of the images and writing have helped researchers identify a 16th-century writing style and to discern new symbols. Researchers say the characters may be from an obscure Algonquian Indian alphabet created by an English scientist to help explorers pronounce the language spoken by the Virginia Indians.
“Just like finding the Rosetta Stone led to a better understanding of the Egyptians, this tablet is beginning to add significantly to our understanding of the earliest years at Jamestown.”
To help researchers decipher the inscriptions, curators at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute recently produced enhanced images of the slate through a process known as reflectance transformation imaging.
Hundreds of high-resolution digital images were taken of the tablet using multiple angled lights to exaggerate the appearance of grooves in the slate’s surface—like watching the sun rise and set on an object.
The images on the slate are difficult to see with the naked eye, because they are the same dark gray color as the slate and they overlap.
Based on an initial examination of images, Heather Wolfe, curator of manuscripts and an expert in Elizabethan script at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., thinks that much of the cursive writing on the slate appears to be written in secretary hand, the main form of cursive handwriting taught in England during the early 16th and 17th centuries.
Archaeologists discovered the slate in the center of James Fort in a well most likely built in 1609 under the direction of Capt. John Smith, a founding leader of Jamestown, which was established in 1607.