Two-year en­deavor at Jamestown church yielded im­por­tant finds

Daily Press (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Mark St. John Erick­son Staff writer

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.”

Buried land­mark

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.”

New dis­cov­er­ies

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.

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