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Interview with William Kelso

When archeologist William Kelso first struck spade to soil on Jamestown Island in April 1994, his best hope was that he’d find a small fragment of the original James Fort, settled and built in May 1607. Even that would have been an incredible discovery. Historians had long thought that the entire Jamestown settlement, except for part of a brick church tower, had been washed away by the James River. What we knew of Jamestown, the first permanent British colony in America, was based entirely on a few letters and other historical documents. Nothing tangible remained.Death at Jamestown: William Kelso

But Kelso hit paydirt. Within hours, he had uncovered a host of artifacts, pottery, armor, and other objects that appeared to date from the early 17th century — from the very roots of America. And now, seven years later, he and the research team he leads for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project (run by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, which owns the 22-acre plot of land where Jamestown was found) have over 400,000 artifacts — pottery, glass, coins, jewelry, musket balls, and dozens of burial sites. They’ve found two sides of the original three-sided fort, a moat, and a dungeon. They’ve found, Kelso says, “ground zero, where America began.”

Kelso’s obsession with Jamestown began when he was a college student, majoring in history. “I was a student in the ‘nawthern’ part of the country, where American history begins with Plymouth. So I was amazed to learn that it actually goes back to the time when Shakespeare was alive, when knights in shining armor existed,” he recalls. “I had thought that knights in shining armor had nothing to do with American history, but they were at Jamestown.” That fascination with Jamestown was part of the reason Kelso decided to do his graduate work at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. “I knew that Jamestown was in the vicinity somewhere. I visited the site, and asked ‘where did America begin?’ And the park rangers said ‘we can’t tell you because it washed away in the river.'” But Kelso doubted the story that Jamestown was gone forever. “It was always there, as a question mark in my mind.” Thirty years later, he would find what was lost.

Kelso’s work is revealing a much different picture of Jamestown than previously imagined. This was no genteel colony of privileged noblemen. Nor were they completely unsuited for life in the Virginia wilderness. “For years the story of Jamestown was that the wrong people were sent; that they were all ‘gentlemen’ who wouldn’t know how to exist in the wilderness,” Kelso says. “Not true. They were trained military men — sure, there were obviously some losers — but they knew where to site this fort and settlement. It was in a good military location: way upriver from the ocean, hidden. They were given instructions to avoid the Spanish, and if the Spanish had been able to find Jamestown quickly and easily, they never would have lasted at all.”

But life was decidedly tough, as revealed by the buried bodies — 76 in all, including JR 102C, the young Brit killed by a musket shot whose story is described in the SECRETS OF THE DEAD II episode “Death at Jamestown.” The bulk of the burials appear hurried, sloppy. “The bodies were thrown in, in very strange positions. There are small graves, smaller than the people. Obviously there was some kind of stress going on.” Some of the bodies are clothed, which was “unheard of at that period,” Kelso says, “because clothing was recycled. People didn’t want to touch the bodies, probably because they feared some contagion on the clothing.” Some of the burials were found with musket or pistol balls. “We have yet to determine if these are in bone or accidentally in the burial, but homicide seems to have been a cause of death as well. It was definitely a rough place.”

Kelso and his team will remove about fifty skeletons during the summer of 2001. In the fall, the bodies will be subjected to a panel of forensic tests: biochemical studies to determine diet, DNA analysis to tease out possible familial relationships, and radiocarbon dating. “We’ll take these studies as far as we can,” says Kelso, who expects to have test results in fall 2002.

So much remains to be excavated, he says, that the project could continue “indefinitely.” He hopes to soon recover the third wall of the triangular-shaped fort, to define the actual configuration of the structure as it stood by the 1620s. “What I want is to be able to understand the evolution of the construction and building type, and begin to see how the British mind adapts to the reality of Virginia,” Kelso says. “The 17th century in American history is kind of lost. You have Plymouth Rock and then Jefferson and Washington are fighting the American Revolution. That leaves nearly 200 years not accounted for. And yet during that time, especially here, the government evolved into sort of a hybrid British system that becomes the model for our government today.”

It’s that history that Kelso still hopes to unearth at Jamestown. “That evolution — in government, housing, industry, you name it — is really the story here. Because of the conditions faced at Jamestown, the British became American.” Understanding that process, Kelso says, “is the Holy Grail to me.”



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