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Discovery of Catholic artifact raises questions at Jamestown settlement

July 30, 2015

Full Lesson


A discovery at the first permanent English settlement in the Americas has raised new questions about the religious influences that played a role in the founding of America.

Researchers unearthed the remains of four original colony leaders buried 400 years ago near a church in the Virginia colony. In one of the graves, diggers discovered a small box now believed to contain Catholic relics, leading experts to wonder why such items would exist at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in England.

At the time, wars between Catholics and Protestants were being fought throughout Europe, so the possibility that covertly-practicing Catholics may have been present in Jamestown intrigues researchers.

In the early years at Jamestown, colonists suffered greatly from food shortages, violent encounters with local Native Americans and disease. After nearly being wiped out, the survivors eventually succeeded, encouraging the British Empire to move forward in colonizing the New World.

Using forensics, genealogy and historical research, researchers identified the graves as belonging to Captain Gabriel Archer, Reverend Robert Hunt, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captain William West. Archer’s grave contained the mysterious relic.

English Protestant graves from this period rarely contained any kind of artifacts, and certainly not any with related to Catholicism.

Archaeological digging at Jamestown began in 1994. Researchers were originally looking for the church, built in 1608, which was the first Protestant church built in the Americas.

Warm up questions
  1. What do archaeologists do?
  2. Where were the first colonies in the United States?
  3. What do you know about the Jamestown settlement?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Why is it significant that a Catholic artifact was found in a Protestant settlement?
  2. What role did religious practice likely play in the early colonization of North America?
  3. Do you think Archer was an openly practicing Catholic? Why or why not?
  4. How might archaeologists solve the puzzle of the Catholic relic at Jamestown?

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