Archeologists Unearth More Nuanced History of Jamestown

May 14, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: In the spring of 1607, 104 men employed by a private English company arrived on the banks of the James River in what is now Virginia. There, they established a settlement, but for generations most historians portrayed their effort as a failure. The settlement has not been nearly as celebrated, nor thought as important, as the colony at Plymouth Rock, founded by the Pilgrims 13 years later.

But now, a far fuller picture of how those in Jamestown actually lived, and succeeded and progressed, is emerging from the ground.

WILLIAM KELSO, Director of Archeology, Jamestown Rediscovery: Am I excited? You better believe it!

KWAME HOLMAN: Archaeologist William Kelso set out in 1994 to discover the settlers’ original fort, long thought to have been consumed by the encroaching James River.

WILLIAM KELSO: In 1994, after putting together a plan and saying, “We’re going to find the fort, we’re going to find buildings, we’re going to find how it evolved through time, we’re going to find a better understanding of the relationships between the Virginia Indians and the Englishmen,” all that has come to be.

KWAME HOLMAN: What did you find in the intervening years? And what story did it tell?

WILLIAM KELSO: Well, what we found is the construction of the fort, where this original settlement was placed. That began to tell me more about the people and the ability of the people that came here, because this turns out to be the very best defensive position they could have chosen in the entire James River basin, and that it was — the fort was never captured by any enemy.

KWAME HOLMAN: And Kelso has concluded that the settlers were not as ill-prepared and -equipped as many historians say.

WILLIAM KELSO: Now what we’re finding archaeologically is that they were well-equipped. We’ve found over a million artifacts, all kinds of things. Different sorts of objects were sent here to help them succeed, and these things were being used.

They were trying industries. They were trying to make glass. They were trying to make pottery, iron. They’re doing iron. They have all the equipment to fish and hunt and to live off of the land.

Going 'through time'

KWAME HOLMAN: Kelso and his team say the more they've explored, the more complex and nuanced the story of Jamestown has become. It's a story of adaptation to desperate conditions, that included years of drought, just as the settlement began; the death of three-quarters of the first settlers because of starvation, disease, conflict, and a supply ship that never reached them; the near-abandonment of the island settlement; and it's eventual success through the cultivation of tobacco.

Talk about the science of the archaeology.

WILLIAM KELSO: Well, archaeology is a process that you can go back through time by looking at the way objects are deposited in the ground, "A" layer of objects across "B" layer of objects. You can go through time. And so we can actually see time passing by sorting out these different deposits that were found.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mary Anna Richardson is a member of the archaeology team.

MARY ANNA RICHARDSON, Archaeologist, Jamestown Rediscovery: Right behind me is just outside of an extension to the governor's house from about 1617. And we found this deep depression, an area where we had our last layer of the agricultural plyzone sinking in a certain area.

So we followed that down, put in a 10-by-10 test into that area, and found a number of disturbances. So far, we've found two coins. One is an Irish penny dating to about 1601. And the latest penny that we found, or item that we found, was from 1613, a Harrington farthing, so that means that most of these deposits, trash deposits, would have been deposited after that date, we're assuming at this point.

Also, numerous numbers of pottery shards, pieces of borderware, redware coming from England. Also, we've just recently discovered a deer antler in one portion of the trash deposit we're working on presently and a borderware candlestick holder, which is pretty cool.

Indian cooperation with settlers

BLY STRAUBE, Senior Curator, Jamestown Rediscovery: This just came in. And it's earthenware, but it really reveals a lot.

KWAME HOLMAN: Bly Straube is the dig's senior curator.

BLY STRAUBE: What it is, is a standing candlestick. We know exactly where it was made. It was made on the border of Hampshire and Surrey Counties in England.

And what's very interesting is that it's a candlestick, because candles were extremely expensive in the early 17th century. So we know that this must have belonged to a gentleman. You know, the average person could not afford to have candles.

KWAME HOLMAN: Records show the local Powhatan Indians often cooperated with the settlers, in part to learn the settlers' metal-working skills. But as the number of settlers and their tobacco fields grew, the Powhatan tried to drive them out. But Bly Straube says it appears that, when the groups did cooperate, they did so closely.

BLY STRAUBE: Well, this table has sort of a collection of materials that relate to the Indians, and that's one interesting thing we've been finding in our excavations, the presence of Indians in the fort. It looks like they are not just passing through, they're not just there to trade, but that they're actually living there. And this may not be just Indian men.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jamestown's most famous and most often-fictionalized feature is the friendship between Pocahontas -- the young daughter of Powhatan, the powerful Indian chief -- and settler John Smith. Pocahontas later would marry John Rolfe, the man credited with cultivating a desirable strain of tobacco that enriched the colony.

BLY STRAUBE: The Indian women kind of -- it's interesting -- may reinforce the statement we have, the historical statement from the ambassador, Spanish ambassador in London, writing to the king of Spain. And he's talking about 40 or 50 marriages between the English and the Indians.

But historians have pretty much dismissed it, because it's the only reference to that kind of thing. But with the archaeology, we kind of see that might be happening. Indian pottery, for instance, the Indian women were the potters. They were the cultivators of food and the preparers of food, and we're seeing that the colonists are actually cooking in these pots and eating from them.

We're also finding interesting things, like this is a projectile point that's made out of English flint. So they're taking the English stones the English are bringing as ballast. They also use the flint to strike their lights and so forth, used in their guns, and they're making points out of it. We also have points made out of the English copper.

And this is very cool; I like this a lot. I don't know if you can see this. All these little beads are made out of mussel shell and typical of what Indians would make, but we also found the stone tool that this Indian was using to drill the hole in the center. And you can see the edges are very rough. He hasn't quite finished off the edges. So this is something in process, and someone is sitting there in the floor doing this.

KWAME HOLMAN: Jamestown also laid the seeds of the southern slavery system, when the first 20 Africans arrived, probably as indentured servants, in 1620. And the settlers would decide to govern themselves by establishing America's first representative body. It met in the fort's church a year before the Pilgrims sailed on the Mayflower.

Meanings behind the artifacts

KWAME HOLMAN: For the Kelso archaeological team, individual mysteries remain: What is the meaning of the loaded musket found at the bottom of a well? And what were the circumstances of the death of the man shot with a musket ball that likely severed an artery in his leg?

WILLIAM KELSO: It seemed like it was an early burial that goes back to the original time. There's a lot of different ways of dying here, and one of them is it could be from -- your own people could shoot you.

And why? Well, there's stress. You know, they were starving to death. There's fighting over food. I'm sure there was a time when the whole civil unrest just kind of took over. And that's just another window to say, well, here's another problem we hadn't thought of before, just like the drought, you know, each other, or friendly fire.

Then I thought, well, then I talked to some people that know how to do -- work with muskets of the time and all, and they say that they're very dangerous and you could wind up either shooting yourself or someone shoot you, and it's self-inflicted. Well, we found out it was not self-inflicted, because we could do this ballistics test, and it had to be shot from a distance. So that brought up.

Then, I read in the 1620s that there were duels amongst -- you know, there was still that thing going on. And in looking at the wound, it could be that this person was shot standing sideways, looking, you know â?? pointing out the gun to the right and that then there is a record of a duel in 1620s.

See, that's again -- we were beginning to find out that the burial may not be as old as we thought. Or 1607, but 1620s, there's a record of a duel, and a man dies of a gunshot wound to the leg. I thought, "Well, there's that, too."

The story is so complex, that archaeology brings up these topics, and then you try to explain what you find, and then you ask questions I don't think any people have asked before, and so you learn.

KWAME HOLMAN: But for Kelso, the results already have created a more realistic view of the beginnings of America, even if it isn't always pretty.

WILLIAM KELSO: I think a lot of people want a sugar-coated history. You know, you take away the warts, and you just show that, you know -- but we say this is warts and all. This is seeing, believing. This is probably a more realistic story of the beginning of this country that we're still living the legacies of that went on here. So let's hear it straight.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the digging goes on, and the story may well change some more as new discoveries are made. And who knows what new mysteries will be uncovered?