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The glass jewel with the encoded message

Coded Jewel Found in 300-Year-Old US Tavern Has Secret Message to Overthrow British King


Brunswick Town, in North Carolina, was once ‘a hotbed of anti-crown sentiment’ where rebellions were plotted and planned. Now archaeologists have made an amazing discovery in a once razed tavern that dates from the pre-Revolutionary period in the United States which proves support for the rebellion. They unearthed a pressed jewel, from a cufflink, inscribed with a secret code used by early revolutionaries to identify each other as they conspired to oppose Royal rule.

The Smithsonian reports that the find was made in Brunswick Town, in North Carolina, which was once ‘a hotbed of anti-crown sentiment’. In the years after the Stamp Act, many of the townspeople were radicals and opposed to the policies of the Royal government.

The jewel was unearthed in the ruins of an old tavern, which once faced the Cape Fear River. It was probably built in the 1730s but was engulfed by fire in the 1760s, based on coin finds. This was a decade before the town itself was burned down by British Redcoats, during the Revolutionary War.

In recent years, researchers from the University of Carolina have been excavating the area in order to better understand the pre-Revolutionary era. They used radar to find the tavern which is a site 400 feet in area (132m). The team, led by Charles Ewen, have made a number of interesting discoveries in the location.

Tiny Etched Jewel

The discovery of the jewel was made by Adam Pohlman, a student at the East Carolina University, who had volunteered to work with the team. It probably fell out of a cufflink when its owner was in the tavern. The artifact was in a crawlspace and it was covered by a wall that had collapsed during the fire that gutted the tavern.

The cufflink was initially thought to be only a small stone. The team cleaned it up and shone a light on the piece, which revealed that it was a translucent blue glass, like a small bead, just over one centimeter in length.  However, it was what is written on the tiny cufflink that caught the attention of the researchers.

A Secret Code

The Charlotte Observer reports that on the jewel was etched in tiny words  ‘“Wilkes and Liberty 45.” Experts say this was a secret code that would have been used by American rebels to signal opposition to King George III.

The rebels opposed King George III

The rebels opposed King George III (Public Domain)

The etching refers to the notorious English radical John Wilkes (1725-1797) who inspired many American revolutionaries. He was pamphleteer and journalists and he attacked a decision by the King, something which scandalized English society.

The number 45 refers to the issue of the North Briton newspaper in which Wilkes’ attack on the monarch was published. Such was the outcry, that Wilkes was forced to flee into exile in France. However, he became a hero to radicals and there were even clubs set up in America to honor him. The cufflink may have belonged to one of the associations’ members.

The case of Wilkes was a turning point in history, and it encouraged many to challenge the authority of the king, who was traditionally seen as divinely appointed and the only source of legitimate authority. Wilkes became a symbol for many radicals and emboldened them to aggressively seek more reforms. According to the Smithsonian ‘Wilkes and Liberty!” became a rallying cry for anti-government activists and the number 45 became a symbol of radical politics. Many royalists would have regarded the etching on the jewel as treason.

English radical John Wilkes (1725-1797) who inspired many American revolutionaries

English radical John Wilkes (1725-1797) who inspired many American revolutionaries Fotokvadrat / Adobe Stock

Seditious Jewelry

Those who were sympathetic to Wilkes and other reformers often wore ornaments and jewelry that subtly stated their radical sympathies. This discovery marks the first time that a piece of ‘seditious jewelry has been found in North Carolina’’ according to the Smithsonian. There have been similar finds made in England and elsewhere in the former colonies.

The find may suggest that the tavern was once a gathering place for locals who wanted political reforms and who opposed Royal policies.  This piece also shows the level of dissident activity against the king in the South in the years before the American Revolution and the impact of radical ideas even on those who lived in small towns. It is expected that the artifact will be put on display in a local museum.

Top image: The glass jewel with the encoded message. Credit: Adam Pohlman and Charles Ewen

By Ed Whelan

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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