Jamestown, Virginia, was an ocean away from England's monarchy, but America's first permanent English colonial settlement still had its own ruling class. Members included John Rolfe, the English tobacco planter who married Pocahontas; George Yeardley, an early governor of the colony of Virginia; and Thomas West, the English nobleman who was also known as Lord De La Warr. (He served as the first governor of Virginia, and his Americanized title, "Delaware," became the name of the mid-Atlantic state, river, and bay.) Now, The Washington Post reports that archaeologists are examining human remains buried at Jamestown to see if any belong to elites like these figures.
Since 1994, a team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit historic preservation group, have been searching Jamestown's remnants for clues about its past. They launched the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project to locate the purportedly eroded site of the settlers' original fort. Called the James Fort, it was built in 1607 by Captain John Smith and other settlers. It ended up containing four graves, including that of De La Warr's nephew.
Over the decades, the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeology Project has located important buildings and discovered more than 1.5 million artifacts. But in recent years, the project's archaeologists have teamed up with anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution to excavate Jamestown's tiny churches, where high-status individuals were once interred.
The task is a challenging one: Historical records don't state where these bodies are located, and they were sometimes dug up and reburied. Experts think that there may even be several layers of burials beneath a church's floor.
Further complicating matters, this isn't the first time Jamestown's worship sites have been dug up. Archaeologists from the late 1800s and early 1900s performed their own searches, and even left what appears to be a tiny time capsule in the foundation of a 17th-century church. (Dating back to 1901, it was recently found in late October, according to the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. It contained a letter, which had disintegrated and was thus unreadable.) But they also left plenty of damage in their wake, ranging from shovel cuts to bones to carelessly reburied remains.
Of particular interest to the team's archaeologists are the bones of West. He died in 1618 while at sea, and his remains were likely preserved in a barrel of wine or spirits and transported to Virginia. He's believed to have been the very first person to be buried in one of the settlement's early churches.
If one recently discovered skeleton—which appears to have belonged to a man of high status—doesn't belong to West, his bones might be located at the very bottom of the church grave layers. This hunt might sound akin to looking for needle in a haystack, but experts say that the nobleman might have been interred in a specially shaped coffin that was reserved for important people. Signifiers like these could make their quest easier.
To ID the remains of important Jamestown settlers, scientists will eventually compare DNA from excavated skeletons with the bones of known relatives. But only time, scientific analysis, and lots of careful digging will reveal the final resting places of West, Rolfe, and other historic figures.
[h/t The Washington Post]