Not Your Disney’s Jamestown

“Is that William Kelso?” asked Kathie.  She was looking toward a cluster of people around an archeological dig at Jamestown, Virginia.  I wasn’t sure which person in the cluster she was talking about, but since I had no clue who William Kelso was anyway, it really didn’t matter.  William Kelso, I learned, is the chief archeologist on the Jamestown excavation project.

In 1607, 104 Englishmen landed on an island in the James River, in southeastern Virginia.  They built a fort to protect themselves from the Spanish and Algonquians and James Fort became the start of the first permanent English colony in America.  Through the years, the stories that came out of the James Fort settlement  — Pocahantas and John Smith and Smith’s invocation of the biblical verse “He who shall not work shall not eat” — were the stuff of which Disney movies are made.

Fast forward to the late 20th century.  The fort and surrounding community is gone – “permanent” apparently meant about 100  years — and it’s thought that erosion of the shoreline had put the fort at the bottom of the James River.

In 1994, Preservation Virginia (who, together with the National Park Service, now owns Jamestown Island) began funding an archeological campaign to recover what it could of the fort.  And during that process, it was discovered that only about a fourth of the fort had sunk into the river.  The archeological campaign, called Jamestown Rediscovery and headed by Kelso, has since found the foundation of the three-fouths of the fort still on land and thousands of artifacts.

They also discovered human remains.  Lots and lots of remains.  Apparently there was a time in Jamestown history, during the winter of 1609-1610, called the starving time when, despite eating dogs, cats, rats and each other, about three fourths of the population starved to death.

We visited Jamestown on a day that the dig was in full swing.  There were lots of students working and, yes, that was William Kelso in the middle of it all.  Kathie wouldn’t know Beyonce from a Kardasian, but she recognizes the chief archeologist of Jamestown.  He’s the guy in the white shirt in the center of the picture above.  There are volunteers stationed all around the dig, ready to explain the history and the process to visitors.

Only one structure from the old fort remains: the 1690ish church tower in the picture at the top of the page.  Attached to the tower now is a church, built in 1907 with funds donated by the National Society of Colonial Dames of America.  While the church isn’t used for regular religious ceremonies, it is available to rent for church-appropriate functions.

There also was a new section of Jamestown built to the east of the fort, appropriately called “New Town.”  The only structure standing in the New Town section is the shell of a Georgian mansion built by the Ambler family in the 1750s and abandoned after it was burnt (for the third time) in 1895.

They’ve discovered the foundations of several buildings in New Town.  Once found, the foundations were buried again to preserve them, and foundation reconstructions were built on top of them so that visitors can see where the foundations are.  The building below was a row house built in the mid-1600s.  Part of it was the town jail and in a well near-by, they found the leg and pelvis of a man that the archeologists believe was drawn and quartered.

Many of the artifacts found at Jamestown are displayed at an archaearium just west of the fort.  Archaearium is a term with which I was unfamiliar before visiting Jamestown and apparently I’m not the only one, since none of the online dictionaries I consulted — Websters, Oxford, Cambridge — recognized it and Google results all refer to the one at Jamestown.  Archaearium doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue — or the end of my fingertips — so lets call it a museum.   Historic Jamestown has a museum that exhibits archeological finds from its dig.

Jamestown was the capitol of Virginia for 79 years and the museum was built on the site of the last (there were 4) Jamestown Statehouse.  The Statehouse, in turn, was built on early 17th century burial grounds.  There was one website that said that an archaearium is a building that protects an archeological site while allowing visitors to see it (it also said that the term usually is used to refer to the Jamestown museum, so I’m beginning to think that Jamestown just made up the word).  Part of the floor in the archaearium is plexiglass, allowing visitors a view of the unmarked graves below.  It was a little weird watching people buy tchotchkes in a gift shop floating over graves.  But I guess when I think about it, in the history of the earth, multitudes have died and been left on every square inch of it and we just keep moving on above them.

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10 Responses to Not Your Disney’s Jamestown

  1. Bluestocking says:

    A fascinating article! I was there when they discovered a skeleton, maybe ten years ago. It’s such an amazing place. Great pictures!

  2. Excellent, really interesting. When I worked on digs, I really enjoyed it when people were interested in what we were doing and I could explain to them and tell them a bit of history about the place. That church added on to that tower looks most bizarre.

  3. Kathie Shattuck says:

    That was a really fabulous visit! I was very impressed at the people working with the dig, so willing to stop and share information with tourists! Somehow I missed the bit about the drawn and quartered guy, though.

  4. Great write up. I grew up in the area and became numb to it until I grew out of being a kid. What a resource for the country.
    Heres a link to one of my favorite John Smith stories that I put together

  5. dianaoverbey says:

    Jamestown is one of my absolute favorite places to visit. I went in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary, and was so impressed with the new exhibit spaces. They did an excellent job in telling the story of the colonists–much better, I think, than what they had before.

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