Flashpoint of Empires – The Archaeological Rediscovery of Jamestown

Today’s post is written by Amy Potts, the HMNS Director of Adult Education. 

One of our country’s most important historical cities was lost.  But, Jamestown has been re-discovered -thanks to archaeologist Dr. William Kelso!

Dr. Kelso will be giving a lecture on his Jamestown discoveries at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on Wednesday, November 16 at 6:30 p.m. The lecture is co-sponsored by Archaeological Institute of America – Houston Society with support from Thompson & Knight Foundation. Following the lecture Dr. Kelso will sign copies of Jamestown, The Buried Truth. For tickets and more information, click here.

Dr. Kelso began directing excavations on Jamestown Island at the behest of Preservation Virginia.  Jamestown’s incredible rediscovery lies in the correction of a historical myth previously thought to be true – that the site of the original Jamestown settlement of 1607 had washed into the James River long ago. The archaeologists used primary source material to estimate the location of the fort on Jamestown Island, such as the Zuniga Map, created by a Spanish spy of the same name, and the accounts of original colonists, such as William Strachey, Captain Ralph Hamor, and John Smith.

Dig Site with Dr. William Kelso
Dr. William Kelso

Upon analysis of these sources and other buildings, the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists discovered the postholes of the original fort; discoloration in the soil left the evidence of the palisades and bulwarks that once formed the fort wall. After expanding the dig, the archaeologists were able to validate that the Jamestown Fort had only begun to wash into the James River, but was instead covered inadvertently by a Confederate earthwork during the American Civil War. Throughout this excavation, the team discovered evidence of fort buildings, artifacts, and the remains of settlers.

The discovery of a well within the limits of the Jamestown fort is important due to the artifacts found in the well.

Wells that had stopped providing (or never provided) drinkable water were frequently filled in with the refuse of daily life, which gave the archaeologists the opportunity to look at a concentrated collection of stratified artifacts. Tobacco pipes, pottery sherds, and combat armor all help date the excavation site to the early 17th century, giving even more support to the positive identification of the fort.  In this case, curator Beverly Straube was able to substantiate evidence regarding the professional work done by the original settlers. Goldsmiths, bricklayers, masons, perfumers, tailors, fishermen, coopers, blacksmiths, glassmakers, carpenters, and tobacco pipe makers are among the dominant professions for which there is archaeological evidence.

William Kelso, one of America’s foremost historical archaeologists specializing in early American history, serves as the Director of Research and Interpretation for the Preservation Virginia Jamestown Rediscovery project. Previously, Kelso served as director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg’s Carter’s Grove, Monticello, and Poplar Forest, as well as Commissioner of Archaeology for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. During his time at Monticello, he was one of the first to make early colonial slave life the focus of archaeological research. Dr. Kelso earned a B.A. in History from Baldwin-Wallace College, an M.A. in Early American History from the College of William and Mary, and a PhD in Historical Archaeology from Emory University.