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Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project

Jane Banner

2008 Jamestown Rediscovery staff
In 1994, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now Preservation Virginia) began administering an archaeological research project on the 22 1/2 acres they owned on Jamestown Island. The project was named Jamestown Rediscovery as its main goal was to find the site of the earliest fortified town on the island that was first "discovered" in 1607 by English adventurers of the Virginia Company of London. James Fort became James Town and the first permanent English settlement in the New World.

The Jamestown Rediscovery story began, as many good stories do, with a question: "Where was the original location of James Fort?" As early as 1837, eyewitness accounts claimed that the fort lay submerged in the James River. They were basing this statement on the assumption that a lone cypress tree one hundred yards off shore at the western end of the island marked the place where, according to chronicler George Percy, the settlers' ships could be moored to the trees. It was assumed that the fort site was situated in that general vicinity and had since eroded away. A relatively abbreviated archaeological excavation on Preservation Virginia (PV) land by the National Park Service had unearthed no apparent evidence of the fort. The rumors of its complete demise prevailed.

After a year spent in planning, Jamestown Rediscovery excavations began attempting to find the fort in time for its 400th Anniversary in 2007. The first 10 year plan was extremely optimistic promising to prove that by the recovery of early 17th-century foundations and artifacts, the fort did in fact escape erosion. The optimism was based on experience. The archaeologists who stepped forward with the "fort survival" theory were armed with years of experience accumulated while conducting research and rescue excavations on 17th-century farm sites along the James River. They first re-assessed previous archaeology at PV Jamestown. Archaeologists Dr. William Kelso, Bly Straube, Nicholas Luccketti, and Ivor Noel Hume reviewed the notes and artifacts recorded from the early Park Service work and records of past and chance finds on the Preservation Virginia property. Their research suggested that finding evidence of the fort was possible if not probable. Soil stains indicating ditches found by NPS archaeologists in the area of a Civil War earthwork suggested to new eyes that the stains could be remnants of palisades (wooden fences). Similar stains had been found elsewhere along the James and had proven to be signs of fortifications. Also, the artifacts in the PV collections included some fragments of pottery and weapons which were old enough to be signs of early Jamestown.

Dr. William Kelso and the first excavation unit Complete borderware jug during excavation

Dr. Kelso, Director of Archaeology for the project, had a theory that the fort lay between the church tower, the only standing 17th-century structure dating to the Jamestown period, and the nearby river shoreline. His reasoning was that the site of the church at Jamestown never changed location, and according to colony secretary William Strachey, "a pretty chapel" was recorded to have stood "in the middest" of the fort. With the rationale "once sacred ground, always sacred ground," Kelso commenced excavations on April 4, 1994 at a place between the church tower and the James River. In less in than 3 excavation seasons, the Jamestown Rediscovery team had uncovered enough evidence to prove that the remains of James Fort existed on dry land in the vicinity of the church tower.

Senior Curator Bly Straube with Jamestown artifacts Since the rediscovery of James Fort, Jamestown Rediscovery's mission has evolved into a more challenging undertaking. There are about a dozen individuals on the staff involved in the excavation, interpretation, preservation, conservation, and research of the site's findings. Thousands of archaeological features such as post holes, ditches, wells, foundations, graves, and pits from several different periods of Jamestown's history have been discovered and recorded by the project. The artifact collection is extensive and requires the sound curation and conservation environment provided by the state-of-the-art, on-site Rediscovery Research Center.

Now, with that initial question answered as to James Fort's location, thousands of new questions are forming. How did these Europeans adapt to this new world environment? What clues can material culture give us as to relations with the native peoples with whom they interacted and traded? What can the archaeological remains tell us about how experiments in industry, trade, and agriculture came to include experiments in self-government? What can we learn about people whose lives at Jamestown were undocumented? Join us in our attempt to piece together the lives of Jamestown's first colonists using the fragments they left behind as we rediscover what it means to be American.


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