Jamestown Rediscovery

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Excavations at the fort site

Jamestown Rediscovery is an archaeological project of Preservation Virginia (formerly the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) investigating the remains of the original settlement at Jamestown established in the Virginia Colony beginning on May 14, 1607. In 1996, the Jamestown Rediscovery team discovered the foundations of the 1607 James Fort, long thought to have disappeared in the waters of the James River.[1]

Historical significance of the site[edit]

Main article: Jamestown, Virginia

The first permanent English settlement in the area which is now the United States established in the Virginia Colony at Jamestown, beginning on May 14, 1607. Upon arrival, the hundred-some colonists set about constructing a fort to protect themselves from the nearby Virginia Indian tribes and from a potential attack from the Spanish settlements in Florida. Within a fortnight, they had completed their initial James Fort and began construction of other buildings to expand the colony. Between 1609 to 1610, lack of local food and replenishment of supplies from England, and inability to cope with disease led to the "starving time", which only 60 colonists survived. The colony was resupplied with new colonists, and over the next several decades became the center of government for the English colonists, and a port town for additional arrivals from England to the new land, with about 500 people living in or around it at its peak. Notable events during this time included John Rolfe's marriage to Pocahontas which helped to create a lasting peace treaty with the native Powhatan Confederacy.

Bacon's Rebellion in 1676 led to the burning down of most of Jamestown, but the town was rebuilt. In 1698, an accidental fire destroyed the statehouse at Jamestown, and the legislature and seat of government temporarily relocated to Middle Plantation. The following year, the move became a permanent change, with that town soon renamed Williamsburg. Soon, Jamestown began a period of rapid decline. By the 1750s, the land was owned and heavily cultivated primarily by the Travis and Ambler families. Due to its location on the James River, the island saw some action during the American Revolutionary War (1776-1781) and the American Civil War (1861-1865), but otherwise, became largely desolate and unpopulated.

Preservation of the site[edit]

Late in the 19th century, Jamestown became the focus of new historical interest. In 1893, the Preservation Virginia property on Jamestown Island consisting of 22.5 acres of land, including the 1639 church tower, was donated for historic preservation by the private owners Mr. and Mrs. Edward Barney. In 1900, a sea wall was built to stabilize erosion. The area thus protected proved to be a valuable investment in the future almost a century later.

By the late 20th century, Preservation Virginia had been working closely with National Park Service (NPS) for many years. Preservation Virginia land and the church site were included in the NPS-operated attraction on the Island (which is currently called Historic Jamestowne). The original site of James Fort had long been thought lost to the erosion of the river.

Rediscovery: Archaeological project[edit]

In 1994, the Jamestown Rediscovery project was created by Preservation Virginia to archaeologically explore their land. The original goal of the archaeological campaign was to locate archaeological remains of "the first years of settlement at Jamestown, especially of the earliest fortified town; [and the] the subsequent growth and development of the town".[2]

Beginning their work in the area protected by the 1900 sea wall, the archaeologists began to explore. Early on, the project discovered early colonial artifacts. This was something of a surprise to some historians as it had been widely thought that the original site had been entirely lost due to erosion by the James River. Many others suspected that at least portions of the fort site remained.

In 1996, they successfully located the site of the original 1607 James Fort. Subsequent excavations have shown that only one corner of the first triangular fort (which contained the original settlement) turned out to have been destroyed. The sea wall built in 1900 to limit the erosion turned out to be a rich investment in the past and the future.

Partial reconstruction of a building and palisades based on post-holes

Since it began, the extended archaeological campaign has made many more discoveries including retrieving close to two million artifacts, a large fraction of them from the first few years of the settlement's history. In addition, it has uncovered much of the fort, the remains of several houses and wells, a palisade wall line attached to the fort and the graves of several of the early settlers.

Visitors to Historic Jamestowne can view the site of James Fort, the 17th-century church tower and the site of the 17th-century town, as well as tour an archaeological museum called the Archaearium and view some of the close to two million artifacts found by Jamestown Rediscovery.

As of 2016, visitors can also often observe archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery project at work, as archaeological work at the site continues and is greatly expanding knowledge of what happened at Jamestown in its earliest days.

Among the discoveries, a grave site with indications of an important figure was located. Some theorizes the remains to be that of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold,[3] though others have claimed it to be the remains of Thomas West, 3rd Baron De La Warr. It had long been thought that Baron De La Warr, who died en route back to the colony from England on his second trip, had been buried elsewhere but some recent research concluded that his body was in fact brought to Jamestown for burial.[4]

In 2010, archaeologists discovered the site of the second church constructed at Jamestown. This is the site where April 5, 1614, Pocahontas married John Rolfe.

In May 2013, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, the project announced the discovery of a young English woman who had been cannibalized during the "starving time" winter of 1609-1610. The woman was around fourteen years old at the time of her death. The research team has named her "Jane." Her identity is unknown, and although DNA samples have been saved for future examination, there is little hope of identifying modern relatives for comparative testing.[5]

In July 2015, the remains of four principals of the colony were identified by the Rediscovery/Smithsonian team. The remains were excavated from the chancel of the church built in 1608 -- "potentially the first Protestant church built in the new world, and the men’s burial there signals their high status in the colony, the researchers said". The four are potentially identified as "Rev. Robert Hunt, thought to be the first Anglican minister in the Americas; Capt. Gabriel Archer, the early expeditionary leader; Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the cousin of Sir Thomas West, the Virginian governor; and Capt. William West, the governor’s uncle".[6] At present, these identifications are based on circumstantial evidence, which it is hoped may be verified in the future through isotopic and DNA analyses.


  1. ^ Writers, Staff. "Jamestown Rediscovery - A&S Magazine". Magazine.clas.virginia.edu. Retrieved 2012-05-06. 
  2. ^ "1994 Interim Field Report - Jamestown Rediscovery". Apva.org. Retrieved 2012-05-06. 
  3. ^ "Is it Gosnold? APVA Preservation Virginia Archaeologists Seek Matching DNA-Historic Jamestowne". Historicjamestowne.org. Retrieved 2012-05-06. 
  4. ^ "Archived copy". Retrieved February 12, 2007. [dead link] vagazette.com, 2006 March 22.
  5. ^ "A 'Starving Time' Tragedy", historicjamestowne.org. Retrieved 2016-01-14/
  6. ^ Fandos, Nicholas, "Remains of Early Colonial Jamestown Leaders Are Identified", New York Times, July 28, 2015. Retrieved 2015-07-28.

Further reading[edit]

  • Kelso, William M. and Staube, Beverly A. Jamestown Rediscovery 1994-2004, (2004), Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, ISBN 0-917565-13-4