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."
Previous archaeological work on Jamestown Island had barely explored that question. While the APVA had purchased 22.5 acres in 1893, including the Confederate earthwork, the earliest excavations focused on the ground beneath the tower of the 1617 church and the adjacent cemetery. In 1903, an Army Corps of Engineers officer tasked with building a sea wall came across several important structures to the west of the earthwork, including foundations of the third and fourth statehouses. (After the statehouse complex burned down in 1698, the capital moved to Williamsburg and Jamestown slowly died, much of its land reverting to agricultural use.) In the '30s, the National Park Service acquired the some 1,500 acres of the island not owned by the APVA, sponsoring digs that revealed the grid of the town, which had spread eastward from the original fort. But apart from the brief foray into the Confederate mound in the '50s, no effort had been put into finding the remains of the settlement that most believed the river had swallowed.
Inch by inch. Working alone at first, Kelso started to dig his first 10-foot-square "quilt" of ground at a slight depression between the 1617 church tower and the river, working toward the earthwork. Immediately finding 17th-century ceramics, he and visiting archaeologists soon located something even more important: a straight line of darkly stained circular patches of earth, varying from 5 to 12 inches in diameter, dimensions consistent with reports of the size of posts used to build the palisade walls. Years of further work with a growing permanent staff would find traces of all three "skirts" of the palisade plus the outlines of the circular bulwarks that were built at each corner as gun emplacements. While the river had eaten away the west bulwark, half of the south bulwark, and most of the south wall, roughly 90 percent of the 1.1-acre interior of the original fort remained on terra firma. (Skirts extending from the east wall might have been added early on to protect houses built just beyond the original triangle, creating a shape closer to Smith's description of a pentagon.)
As Kelso's crews continued, the excavations yielded an ever growing trove of evidence: shadowy traces of some of the first structures (from primitive lean-tos built against the palisade walls to the more sophisticated "mud and stud" barracks and factory), as well as cellars, pits, wells, and graves whose contents would contribute to the nearly 1 million artifacts so far discovered. The objects, many of which are now on display in the APVA on-site Archaearium, include tools, weapons, medical implements, human remains, religious paraphernalia, and even a tobacco seed that might have been among those that John Rolfe imported from the Caribbean and started planting in 1613. But what is the larger story that all these findings tell?
For his part, Kelso hopes the take-away lesson of the 400th anniversary is that Jamestown was anything but a botched enterprise. "I won't overstate that there weren't losers sent over here," he says, "but there were more good people who made this colony work than there were inadequate ones." Doubt the colonists' savvy? The siting of the fortress itself was testament to their military sense, enabling their artillery to dominate river traffic while sitting beyond the range of ship-borne guns. Question their grit? The construction of the fort in a mere 19 days amid fierce heat and sniping from local Indians was a feat unequaled even by the much better equipped builders of the set of the recent movie The New World. Think the colonists lacked entrepreneurial zeal? Artifacts indicate a rich diversity of industrial and craft ventures, ample proof that those men (and, soon, women) quickly set to work trying to make a profit for their company. Other findings fill in details about life in the first successful English colony in America, showing, for instance, even more interaction and, possibly, intermarriage with Indians than once was thought.
"For so long, Jamestown was more like a myth than reality," says Kelso. "But to find it-this three-dimensional thing-pulls it all together and breathes life into it. It makes it credible and real. And the myth just sort of evaporates."
This story appears in the January 29, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.