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A Catholic enigma found in a grave at Jamestown

July 29, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
In 2013 archaeologists discovered the remains of four early colony leaders buried 400 years ago at the Jamestown settlement in Virginia. On top of one of the graves was a silver box resembling a religious artifact, presenting a mystery for researchers. Jeffrey Brown learns more from James Horn of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.

GWEN IFILL: But, first, a new discovery at the historic Jamestown settlement. The remains of four important residents and a mysterious religious relic have added new insight and raised new questions about life at the nation’s first permanent English colony.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The men were leaders in the colony, and as seen in this 3-D animation of the settlement site, they were buried in a long-vanished church some 400 years ago.

Inside one of the coffins, that of Captain Gabriel Archer, was a silver box containing what appear to be Catholic relics, a striking finding in the Anglican settlement. Digging has gone on at Jamestown since 1994. These remains were uncovered by archaeologists in 2013, and just made public after two years of research by the Smithsonian Institution and the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.

The president of the latter group, and himself an historian, James Horn, joins me now.

And welcome to you.

JAMES HORN, President, Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation: Well, thank you. Pleasure to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, set the scene for us briefly here. This is the first colony, dire straits, almost coming to an end very quickly, right?

JAMES HORN: Yes, that’s right.

It’s the first English colony, first permanent English colony in America, the first beachhead of what was to be a great English empire in the New World. And the first two, three years are some of the most challenging the colony ever endures, a combination of starvation, food shortages, Indiana attack, and disease really decimates the numbers of settlers.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the discovery of these four men, how did it come about? Did you know you were looking for them in particular?

JAMES HORN: We didn’t.

What we were looking for, what we hoped to find was the original church, the 1608 church, which is the first English church, Protestant church in America. So, we went looking for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so Captain Gabriel Archer, Reverend Robert Hunt, Sir Ferdinando Wainman?

JAMES HORN: Wainman.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did I say it right?


And Captain William West.


JEFFREY BROWN: What do we know about them, and why is it important to find their remains?

JAMES HORN: Well, we know a good deal about two of them.

And if we start with the Reverend Robert Hunt, first Anglican minister at Jamestown, he’s responsible for ministering services, Church of England services to the settlers, but also to begin the long process of preaching to local Indian peoples.

We know a little about bit about his background, where he was from. But he plays a very important role in founding the Church of England in Jamestown.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you — you’re confident about their identity because of a lot of forensic research, right? This is high-tech stuff that you are applying.

JAMES HORN: High-tech stuff and low-tech stuff.



JAMES HORN: Yes, a combination of different methods, including the archaeology, obviously, then the forensics, and documentary research, genealogy, and even high-tech — involving some high-tech processes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the small box found in the coffin of Captain Archer, with items identified as Catholic relics, this was a surprise? How much do we know? What do we not know at this point?

JAMES HORN: Well, it certainly was a surprise, for two reasons.

Objects found in graves are rare, in the English context, at least. So we were surprised to find any artifact. But this artifact is a real enigma, because it wasn’t clear to us who placed it there, what it is doing there. Is it a Catholic reliquary? Is it a Catholic reliquary that was repurposed for Anglican uses, retranslated for the new church in the New World?

We have got a lot of questions to answer and what we will be working on — on this for some time to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it complicates this early history of religion in the New World, right, although it goes back to — from Tudor history, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: I know that the fight is still going on at the time in England over Catholicism, hidden, right, vs. the new church, the Church of England.

JAMES HORN: Well, yes, and in Europe, of course.


JAMES HORN: So Europe is really split in two.

There’s a great contest between Protestantism and Catholicism. And that struggle shifts to a New World theater. And Virginia gets caught up in that early. Jamestown is part of that. And so what we have now is the possibility of perhaps an organized Catholic cell in place in Jamestown, at Jamestown, in the first years. And that was — I don’t think we anticipated finding that.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, briefly, what happens next? Where do you go from here?

JAMES HORN: More forensics, because we are not — we cannot be 100 percent certain of the identification at this stage. We have not done DNA.

And so we are confident in our analysis so far. But we want to follow up with DNA. And we’re doing that right now. And then much more research on the English backgrounds of these four men, and particularly Archer. He is the real mystery in this.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, James Horn, Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, thanks so much.

JAMES HORN: Pleasure.