ARCHAEOLOGISTS have uncovered a rare but perfectly preserved early 17th-century Scottish pistol at the historic former British colony known as the birthplace of the United States, making the firearm one of the oldest artefacts of European origin ever discovered in North America.
The weapon probably belonged to one of the first settlers to arrive at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, and was recovered from a well at the site with several other "hugely significant" artefacts.
"It was like Christmas in July," said Bly Straube, the curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery museum where the snaphaunce pistol, probably made by a manufacturer in the Scottish Lowlands more than 400 years ago, was being cleaned up in a chemical-free water bath yesterday.
"The lock is encrusted but it has a brass barrel common on a lot of Scottish-made pistols. It's very distinctive and in very good condition."
The pistol, leather shoes, a ceremonial axe known as a halberd and a small lead tag engraved with the archaic spelling "Yames Towne" are some of the earliest European artefacts to be discovered in the United States, according to William Kelso, the site's director of archaeology.
His team has spent 12 years excavating areas of the 22.5-acre Jamestown site, where three boats carrying 107 colonists, under the command of Captain John Smith, landed on 14 May, 1607, and began construction of what would become Britain's first permanent settlement in the New World.
Also recovered from the well this week was the first completely intact Bartmann water jug.
Segments of other jugs have been recovered and replicas have become best sellers in Jamestown's gift shop.
Once clean, all the artefacts will be freeze-dried then given a protective wax coating before they go on display.
"They're the earliest you could find in what is now the United States," Mr Kelso said. He added: "On a scale of one to ten, this is an 11. The pistol is gorgeous. Maybe it was lost accidentally, or maybe it was broken. It's not even tarnished. The brass looks like gold."
Dr David Caldwell, curator of the National Museum of Scotland and an expert on medieval weapons, has also welcomed the discovery."It's very exciting because, of these 17th-century Scottish pistols, there are maybe only about 30 or 40 remaining anywhere in the world," he said. "Most of them are preserved in collections abroad, where they might have been given as gifts by mercenaries to foreign dignitaries. Virtually none is preserved in Scotland, or has come out of the ground in Scotland.
"So to have one turn up in the context of somewhere like Jamestown is very interesting. It's evidence of a weapon actually being used by the people of that time, and not one from a collection that was probably never fired."
Ms Straub said that the dig had uncovered similar weapons in the past, including a matching pair of left and right-handed pistols, but none was in such good condition. "The water in the well was the perfect preserver because it had no oxygen in it," she said.
"The colonists probably abandoned the well and started throwing rubbish in it when the water became stagnant and was no longer drinkable."
Another theory is that the gun's owner placed the weapon on the well's rim as he tried to get a drink and accidentally knocked it in.
The truth will never be known, but Ms Straub said that the gun almost certainly belonged to a civilian family man among the settlers."It was the preferred personal weapon of a gentleman, and wouldn't have been issued to the rank and file in the military. They were unwieldy weapons."
The first recorded use of a snaphaunce pistol was on an early English raid to the New World in 1584.
Like all Scottish-made firearms of the period, they were muzzle-loaded and featured a simple lock firing mechanism.
"One of the fortunate things is that manufacturers put their own markers or date stamps on the weapons around that time, so it will be interesting to see if we can identify it further," Dr Caldwell said.
The Queen and the US president, George Bush, have been invited to next year's 400th anniversary celebrations of the Jamestown settlement, which is already causing much interest in the US.
A replica of the galleon Godspeed, which first transported the settlers to Virginia, is currently on a six-month tour of historic east coast ports.