END OF LANDMARK DIG
Two-year endeavor at Jamestown church yielded important finds
Jamestown archaeologists will end more than two years of intense study this week when they backfill their dig inside the footprint of four different structures spanning 300 years.
Removing the brick floor from the 1907 Memorial Church in mid-2016, they went on to find the foundations of the 1617 and 1640s churches built on the same site, as well as a cellar dating to the extension of the original fort of 1607.
They were still probing the cellar and a mysterious feature at the west end of the churches — where the 1640s builders erected
an arched foundation wall to avoid an earlier grave — when they stopped to line the exposed surface with protective felt cloth and began backfilling it Wednesday.
“This is the most complicated thing I’ve ever worked on at Jamestown,” said Senior Staff Archaeologist Mary Anna Hartley, who led the team that explored the jumbled site of the first representative assembly in the New World.
“When we started, we didn’t realize how much evidence was left — or how much work it would be to sort out the puzzle.”
Last opened in the early 1900s, the church site was hidden for more than a century after the pioneering digs conducted by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — now Preservation Virginia — before the construction of the Memorial Church and the 300th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in 1907.
It was opened again in 2016 in order to find any new evidence that might have been overlooked by one of the earliest archaeological excavations in the United States — and to answer many long-standing questions about the structure that housed the historic 1619 meeting of Virginia’s General Assembly.
“Jamestown is a place of many firsts,” said Director of Archaeology David Givens, describing both the first democratic assembly and the first generation of Africans who arrived a few weeks later.
“So this place enables you to see where these abstract concepts of democracy and slavery actually started. This is where we became Americans.”
Still, the site looked like a churned-up war zone when Hartley and her team began exposing the wildly scrambled array of features left by Jamestown’s inhabitants during the 1608 expansion of the fort, the construction of four churches and at least one but possibly two church towers and a catastrophic 1676 fire.
Fractured layers of brick-pavers and floor tiles lay strewn across the floor — each linked to one of three different sanctuaries erected in 1617, the 1640s and the 1680s.
Complicating that cryptic array of archaeological features was a late-1700s cemetery wall that cut diagonally across the footprints of all three 1600s churches with a line of potentially eye-fooling bricks robbed from earlier floors and fallen walls.
Generations of brown-stained grave shafts dappled the site, too, including some so ancient they were visibly compressed or cut through by all the building and burials that followed.
“What we have here is multiple iterations of this church. It’s just one on top of the other,” Givens said.
“So trying to figure out what’s what is hard to do. It’s like trying to read footsteps in the snow.”
The riddles began to unravel one by one, however, as the archaeologists followed the trowel marks left by the excavators of the early 1900s, then began to probe still deeper.
Eventually, they were able to separate the foundation of the 1617 timber-frame church — which was built on compacted clay, cobblestones and mortar — from the all-brick and mortar foundation of the 1640s church that followed.
They also learned to recognize the tell-tale remains of the mudand-stud timber-frame structure from those of the brick churches built largely outside its footprint.
Other puzzles gave up their secrets, too, as the team determined that an initially inexplicable arch in the west foundation wall of the 1640s church was erected to avoid an earlier grave found as it cut across the rear of the slightly longer 1617 structure.
“We’ve really come into our full stride when it comes to understanding all the architectural remains we’re seeing in the ground,” Givens said.
“We know our 1607 fort. We know the 1617 mud-and-stud timber-frame church. We know our brick church from the 1640s. And we can tell them apart.”
Just how intensive this focus on reconstructing a sense of place has been can be seen in the brick and mortar tests conducted at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
“We’ve had these samples analyzed in great detail — and they could separate them in time,” Givens said.
“What we learned is that the builders here were operating at a very high level — they were at the top of their field — and that the materials they were working with were very well-made.”
Looming just as large as the 400th anniversary of the first assembly approaches in 2019, however, is a possible link between human remains recovered from the church earlier this year and Gov. Sir George Yeardley, who presided over the landmark meeting just before bringing some of the first Africans to Jamestown a few weeks later.
That connection could be confirmed or ruled out soon by DNA studies being conducted in the United States and Europe, Givens said.
In recent weeks, the 1608 cellar has demanded more attention, too, as archaeologists probed for its bottom deep beneath the chancel of the 1617 church where Yeardley and his council sat during the assembly.
Among the artifacts recovered from the 14-foot-long feature are a fragment of a delft apothecary jar, a purple mussel-shell bead and a lady’s finger ring — all deposited before the cellar was filled after 1613.
The clay steps leading down into the space provide an equally evocative window into the past — but Hartley didn’t expect to reach the bottom before breaking away to begin the backfilling operation.
“This was probably a five-yearproject,” she said, “so it’s bittersweet now that we have to stop digging and have it backfilled.
“This is probably the last time this site will be open for decades — maybe another century to come.”
Still, among the many lastminute tasks was a half-day digital mapping operation in which a remotely controlled drone flew over the site taking 170 pictures.
Stitched together into a digital 3-dimensional model, the photos not only plot each exposed feature but also provide a guide for any excavations to come.
“This will be important for anyone going back to look at this again in the future,” Staff Archaeologist Bob Chartrand said.
“If anybody has a question, it can put them right where they need to be to find an answer.”
“What we have here is multiple iterations of this church. It’s just one on top of the other. So trying to figure out what’s what is hard to do. It’s like trying to read footsteps in the snow.”
ABOVE: Archaeologist Anna Shackleford spreads granite filler Wednesday over a liner in the dig siteat Jamestown Church.
Before and after: At left, Jamestown archaeologist Anna Shackelford and Lesley Jennings do some last minute excavation in the floor of the church on Monday. At right, pulverized granite is poured over a black liner as the dig starts to get filled in Wednesday. A number of key artifacts were recovered during the two years the church floor was excavated.
A remote-controlled drone was used to create a digital map of the site that archaeologists say could provide a guide to any future excavations underneath the church.Director of Archaeology David Givens
Michael Levin, director of collections and conservation, and archaeologist Lesley Jennings spread a black liner over the excavation site to protect it before the puverized granite backfill is applied.