Rediscovering Jamestown

Rediscovering Jamestown


Lives & Legends ~ The People of Jamestown~From the Colonial National Historic Park

Stories about Rediscovering Jamestown

Timeline of Discoveries


    1861 Confederate forces constructed earthworks on Jamestown Island and discovered fragments of armor and weaponry.

    1897 APVA (Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities), which owned 221/2 acres of Jamestown, explored the church foundations.

    1901-1902John Tyler, Jr. conducted excavations at the church and cemetery. Discoveries included the 1617 cobblestone foundation of the wooden church.

    1903 Colonel Samuel H. Yonge, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer who in 1901 supervised construction of the concrete seawall built to prevent further erosion of the riverbank at Jamestown, located the foundations of the country house, the Ludwell house, and the third and fourth statehouses. Yonge asserted that the discoveries made by the Confederate forces in 1861 indicated the close proximity of the fort to the present site of the Confederate earthwork at the western end of the island.

    1934-1936 National Park Service acquired remaining 1,500 acres of island not owned by APVA. John T. Zaharov, H. Summerfield Day, Alonzo W. Pond and W.J. Winter directed the Civilian Conservation Corps excavators, although stratigraphic documentation was lost.

    1936-1941 J.C. Harrington was assigned to Jamestown and began work on the island in 1937. He refined the methodology in use and established Jamestown as a pioneering effort in historical archeology.

    1948-1949 National Park Service archeologists, under direction of J.C. Harrington, excavated the Jamestown Glasshouse site.

    1954-1956 In preparation for the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, John L. Cotter was made supervisory archeologist at the park. Thirteen acres of the town site were explored by six miles of trenches, three feet wide each, on a 50-foot interval grid; 100-foot squares (or lots) were excavated meticulously. Joel Shiner conducted an intensive search on APVA property for the fort. His work neither proved nor disproved that the fort was located at the western end of the island. However, he located an early 17th century armorer's forge, indicating that the fort probably was nearby. He also documented Native American occupation on the island prior to 1607. Louis Caywood excavated the 17th century plantation "Green Spring" a few miles to the north. Cotter's report on the excavations at Jamestown was extensive and still serves as the major source on Jamestown archeology.

    1992-1996 In preparation for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the National Park Service signed a cooperative agreement with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (CWF) and the College of William and Mary (W&M) to conduct a five-year archeological assessment of Jamestown Island. This project brought together a multidisciplinary team of archeologists, historians, geologists, geophysicists, computer scientists, librarians, and environmental specialists to develop a revised understanding of the entire human history of the island.

    The main goals for this assessment were as follows:

    1. Determine the geological and topographical appearance of the island over the last 12,000 years.

    2. Determine land use practices of American Indians and early European inhabitants.

    3. Locate all archeological sites on the island, including possible prehistoric settlements, outlying 17th century farms and plantations, and 18th through 20th century features.

    4. "Reconstruct" the town site through computer mapping.

    5. Assemble documentary, cartographic, archeological, architectural, and artifactual information about Jamestown Island for future research and interpretation to include published technical reports and materials for public use.

    Andrew Edwards and Audrey Horning from CWF supervised the field work in the "New Towne" area. They investigated various sites previously excavated in the 1930s and 1950s to answer specific questions dealing with structures' appearances, functions and use. They also dug test pits to search for new features such as a possible brewhouse. Another important part of the field work was to obtain previously uncollected "ecofacts" from seeds and pollen which explained changes in the environment and how the colonists altered the landscape of the island.

    Dennis Blanton and Patty Kandle from W&M conducted the first systematic survey for sites of all kinds on the entire island. By digging nearly 6,000 small test holes at 20m intervals, 60 previously unknown sites were identified covering the range from prehistoric to modern times. These 60 new sites explain a great deal about the way the people used and settled the island for nearly 12,000 years.

    Reports from the several assessment teams are in progress. Once this valuable new information is available, it will change the way we think about the history of the island and its inhabitants from prehistoric times to the present.
    1994 - PresentThe Jamestown Rediscovery Project, initiated by The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), was undertaken to find archaeological evidence of the 1607 Jamestown Settlement Fort. To date they have recovered over 200,000 artifacts many dating to the first half of the 1600's and many to the earliest years of that first Jamestown settlement. Excavations have uncovered the soil stain footprint of an upright log barrier, undoubtedly the remnants of a palisade dating to the early 17th century, footprints of at least one post-hole building and the possible skeletal remains of one of those earliest settlers.

    May 9, 2007:

    Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne recently unearthed what appears to be the leading edge of a cache of arms and armor discarded by Jamestown colonists 400 years ago in a trash pit that may be an early well inside the north corner of the 1607 James Fort.

    Viewed by Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to the site May 4, the objects currently under excavation include tasset lames -- armor used to protect the thigh, a nearly complete broad sword with an intact basket hilt (sword handle), a rapier hilt and an iron pole.

    "It may be like the tip of an iceberg. We expect that these exciting artifacts may be buried with many other related finds. We'll see as we uncover more of it in the next few days," said Dr. William Kelso, APVA director of archaeology.

    According to historical accounts, in June 1610 after the "Starving Time" winter, the colonists buried unneeded military equipment before they left to seek supplies and passage back to England on fishing ships off the coast of New England. Instead, they returned to Jamestown the following day after they met Lord De La Warre's fleet at the mouth of the James River.

    The objects were partially excavated last Friday about 3 ft. below the 17th-century ground level inside a 19 x19 ft. pit. "Because of the way the layers of debris are slumping toward the center of the pit, we think this may be a well that went foul and later became a trash pit. The sides seem to have eroded outward, which may be why the feature is so large. So far, we know it's at least 6 feet deep. We haven't found the bottom or a well shaft yet," Kelso said.

    The pit is below the foundation to a 1617 addition to the governor's house, and the latest artifact is a 1613 English farthing found near the top. If it is a well, this could be the first well that was dug by John Smith in 1608-1609," he said.

    Rich with artifacts, the pit has yielded glass trade beads, baubles, chess pieces, iron objects, and pottery sherds that date to the early years at James Fort. Virginia Indian artifacts have also been unearthed including a grinding stone, a bone needle and finished and unfinished shell beads. Archaeologists have also found oysters, sturgeon scutes, crab claws, and fish, bird, turtle, deer and goat remains. Danny Schmidt, APVA senior archaeologist, said the faunal remains include more wild than domesticated animals, another sign that this is an early pit.

    Archaeologists are also digging in an area near a 1607 graveyard in the west corner of the fort near the James River. They've uncovered an undisturbed area about 15 to 20 ft. between a grave that was recently unearthed and the 1607 graves. Schmidt said the gap may indicate that there was a building there. Archaeologists are hoping to find the remains of the first church somewhere in the area as they continue digging toward the center of the fort. "It would make sense to find the church near the graveyard," Schmidt said. Further excavation this season will reveal more evidence. He noted that the area will be exposed quickly after the six-week summer field school begins June 4.

    In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the APVA Preservation Virginia launched the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project in 1994 to identify and interpret the remains of the 1607 James Fort and town site. When archaeologists announced that they had discovered the fort site in 1996, they dispelled the long-held belief that the fort was lost to the James River. Since then, archaeologists have found the outline of the fort including the remains of palisades, bulwarks, buildings, pits and wells. In addition, they've uncovered and analyzed the remains of the last Jamestown statehouse. Over one million objects reflective of life at James Fort have been unearthed so far, as well as the burials of over 70 colonists including the remains of a high-ranking colonist, possibly Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, the principal organizer and administrator of the early Jamestown effort.

    The outlines of unmarked grave shafts continue to be discovered in the southwest section of James Fort. Archaeologists are hoping that this means the original church is nearby, but it has yet to be found. The Field School students are helping the full-time archaeologists excavate 10' x 10' sections of earth down to the fort-period soil layer. Single burials and a possible double burial have been found along with thousands of artifacts. Meanwhile, near the northern bulwark, the possible well feature is looking more and more like a cellar. Two courses of a brick wall have been found inside the feature. This probable cellar was constructed parallel to the fort palisade wall, indicating it was from the fort period and hence from the earliest years of the colony.

    More fort-period graves have been discovered in an area near the southwest corner of the fort. This is the same area where over 20 colonist graves were found in 2005. There is speculation that this unmarked burial ground may indicate that the fort's original church is nearby, but so far no definitive evidence has been found. A distinct absence of graves in one area which is in-turn surrounded by graves may indicate the presence of a structure, and there have been a few postholes found in this area. The area still needs more precise excavation before all of the features can be known. Danny Schmidt, Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeologist, said that they plan to go back over the area very carefully with trowels to see if further evidence can be found to illustrate the significance of the lack of burials in this one area. A late-17th-century ditch cuts through this area, its age indicated by the presence of pottery known to have been created beginning in the 1680s.

    Though the church has not yet been found, thousands of 17th-century artifacts have turned up during the search. A nearly-complete halberd blade was just excavated from the area. It is in remarkable shape and is only mildly oxidized. A small lead horse, probably a children's toy, was discovered and is similar to one found in October of 2006. A fragment of a crucifix, made of jet, was also found in the area. This is the second jet crucifix found inside James Fort.

    A brass seal, created for making impressions in wax, was recently excavated. Bly Straube, Curator with Jamestown Rediscovery, explained that the falcon on one side of the seal probably indicates that the owner was a gentleman, as the sport of falconry was a pastime enjoyed by those of higher class. The anchor on the other side hints that the owner was also a seafaring man. An ornamental brass mount in the form of a martlet is another recently-excavated artifact that can tell us something about its owner. A martlet is a mythical bird that has no legs, but instead has tufts of feathers where its legs should be. Martlets were used in English heraldry to represent a later (typically the fourth) son in a family. Whereas the first three sons in a family traditionally had pre-defined paths in life, the fourth had "nowhere to land," but instead had to create his own fortune.

    In an area near the northern bulwark, a subterranean feature discovered several months ago is starting to take a more definite shape. Precise corners of the feature have been found, and two bricks of what was probably once a wall have also been discovered. All of this points to the feature being a cellar, but that conclusion is still not 100% certain. This is the same feature where the cache of sword hilts and other artifacts were found. The structure was built parallel to the fort wall which indicates that the fort walls were standing at the time of construction.

    Border ware pipkin, a type of cooking vessel, is being mended together from pieces found in the cellar and from the early well excavated last year. Conservator Caroline Taylor explained that Border ware pottery originates in the border regions of northeast Hampshire County and western Surrey County in England. It often has a tell-tale yellow/green glaze. Other examples of Border ware in the Historic Jamestowne collection are on display in the Archaearium.

    Conservation is also underway on body armor known as a jack of plate that was excavated in 2005. When it was originally found, it was removed along with the earth below and directly around it so that the painstaking process of its conservation could be done indoors over several weeks. Conservator Michael Lavin is now removing the dirt bit by bit so that the armor can be cleaned and stabilized.

    The dig will continue over the summer both in the southwest and northern areas of the fort. Weekday visitors to Historic Jamestowne can watch the dig in progress and then see many of their past finds in the Archaearium

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