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Revealing the truth about Jamestown, one bone at a time

Revealing the truth about Jamestown, one bone at a time

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The proof is in the bones. It’s in the shell beads. It’s in the etchings on a silver reliquary, the fragile remains of a captain’s staff, the earthen stains that outline a once-thought-vanished fort, a slate tablet that recorded first impressions of a New World.

In the fertile ground of Historic Jamestown, William Kelso has recorded the tangible facts of “Jamestown, The Truth Revealed,” the title of his new book that updates the archaeological discoveries at the first permanent English colony in America.

Cannibalism among the settlers during the Starving Time, an overwhelming presence of Indian artifacts intermixed with English artifacts, and the identification of the prominent men buried in the original church revise and deepen the understanding of life in that precarious colony in the early 1600s.

As head archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, Kelso, 76, has achieved rock-star status at Historic Jamestowne. That’s where he famously discovered evidence of the triangular fort that English settlers built on the banks of the James River in 1607, a fort that generations of historians had concluded was eroded away. He presented that archaeological evidence in “Jamestown, The Buried Truth,” which was published just in time for the 400th anniversary of the colony.

Since the Jamestown archaeology project began in 1994, about 2 million artifacts have been unearthed, many of them displayed in the Voorhees Archaearium Archaeology Museum on site. Preservation Virginia jointly operates Historic Jamestowne with the National Park Service.

Trash pits uncovered in the dig revealed Indian shell beads made inside the fort using Indian tools, a pieced-together pottery jar made in the shape of an Indian basket, a slate tablet with scratchings depicting a bird found in Bermuda, military helmets and the bones of a 14-year-old woman who was cannibalized by starving colonists during the winter when two-thirds of them died.

“The reason it’s all here: They didn’t take it anywhere. They didn’t go home. They died,” Kelso said.

As Kelso walked through the exhibits, he was introduced to visitors by tour guides who happened to see him. At the dig site, he was approached by visitors who wanted to thank him and take his photo — something that happens about 20 times a day, he said. Daily email tributes included this one from John Martin, who toured with Kelso on May 2:

“I can’t think of another archaeological study that has brought the personal experience of historical figures back to life on so many different levels and in such a vivid way,” Martin wrote. “You’ve practically pulled the myths and legends right out of the history books and put them in our hands while we stand in their shoes. I remain awestruck.”

Kelso said he gets a little embarrassed by the attention.

“There’s no way I would have thought that would happen,” he said. “I was in this because it was fun finding stuff. The fact that it’s important and useful to other people, it’s wonderful. That’s just a residual effect in my mind. ...

“When I started to look for the fort, they said, ‘You’ll never find it.’

“I put the shovel in the ground. No one else would do it because they were afraid it would fail. I don’t take credit for finding the fort. That happened. Cool. I tried. I was at a point in my life when I had to try.”

On the new book’s cover, the haunting face of a young woman stares out from darkness. That’s the reconstruction of “Jane,” whose mutilated skull was found with other trash in a layer that dates to the Starving Time in the winter of 1609-10. Supplies from England hadn’t arrived, and the Powhatan Indians tried to kill anyone who ventured outside the fort.

When Kelso first saw the pieces of broken skull, he thought he might be looking at a murder victim. Analysis by Douglas Owsley at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History soon determined that the skull had been “processed” for food, based on the pattern of cuts and breaks.

It’s the only forensic evidence of cannibalism ever found from that era, he said.

“This really happened,” he said. “It’s not sugar-coated.”

Evidence also proved that Indians and settlers intermingled in the fort far more than had traditionally been thought. Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe might not have been as much of a rarity as it appeared.

Tribal lore has included a heritage of “English Pamunkeys,” descended from early settlers, he said. “This is speculation. The artifacts aren’t,” he said.

“We have bead-making going on using Indian methods — using stone drills. That’s new. The Indians were involved, not just the enemy. … This was a diverse society.”

Kelso is already working on his next book, because new information continues to shape the interpretation of what the artifacts mean.

One new lead suggests a new explanation for a silver reliquary box found buried in the Jamestown church with a prominent settler. More research might be needed in Lyme Regis, England, and in Bermuda to find out if Kelso’s new hunch is right.

He’s looking for meaning to emerge from the fragments of the past.

“What we do is not a science, because you can’t replicate the past and test it, the way scientists can. … I think it’s an artistic science,” Kelso said. “There’s art, and I’m working on the art part. The definition I see of art is harmony. … In the dirt, everything is mixed up. We’re looking for patterns, and that’s what you do in art. It’s not just noise. You gotta see some meaning to come out of that. That’s harmony.”


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