As the Ground Shares Its Secrets
A determined archaeologist challenges old beliefs
On the south side of Jamestown Island stands an imposing bronze statue of Capt. John Smith, put up in 1907 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the colony he helped to found. For most of the past century, a loose archaeological consensus held that the statue looked out over the site of the original settlement, a stretch of low-lying ground long ago eaten away by the swiftly flowing currents of the James River.
The loss of that land, and the stories that its subterranean contents might have told, became a kind of coda to the standard historical interpretation of the colony itself: that Jamestown had been a largely unsuccessful venture, carried out by genteel adventurers and military men ill-suited to the task of wresting a livelihood from a rugged wilderness. That they had failed to build their palisaded encampment on higher ground was further proof of their ineptitude. No wonder Jamestown took a back seat to Plymouth Rock in American history textbooks.
Lingering doubts. But one man who had doubts about the established consensus has been almost single-handedly responsible for overturning it-and with it, much of the older thinking about the first years of the Virginia Company's colony. Since 1993, as chief archaeologist of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, William Kelso has been directing the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, pursuing a hunch born exactly 30 years before. A graduate student at the nearby College of William and Mary when he first visited the island, he was unconvinced by the park ranger's spiel. Why, Kelso wondered, would those first settlers not have put their base on higher ground where later, during the Civil War, Confederate soldiers had thrown up an artillery earthwork? Kelso knew that desultory digs in and around the Civil War mound in the 1950s had failed to find traces of the original James Fort. Yet his suspicions were reinforced by a book, Here Lies Virginia, that he read a few months after his visit to the island. The author, Ivor Noel Hume, a British archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg, had argued that burial grounds discovered near the earthwork suggested that the original fortress stood nearby.
Noel Hume later changed his mind, but the idea continued to tug at Kelso, even as he went on to do "rescue" archaeology along the James River, a large-scale excavation of a colonial site on the Georgia coast, and further graduate study at Emory University. Eventually becoming director of archaeology at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, he worked extensively on the plantation's slave quarters. Kelso, a weathered but exceptionally fit 65, describes slavery as "one of the two great undocumented stories of early America." Yet as absorbed as he was in his work at Monticello, he never lost interest in what he calls "the forgotten century of American history." So when the APVA offered him a chance to tackle one of the 17th century's enduring mysteries, he jumped. "The main goal was to find evidence of the original 1607 settlement," he says. "It seemed like a good idea to find out what was really going to be commemorated in 2007."