Kentucky archaeologists uncover Jamestown history during recent dig

Thousands of pottery fragments, or sherds, have been found at the Jamestown site.
Thousands of pottery fragments, or sherds, have been found at the Jamestown site.

What do archaeologists do on vacation? Dig, of course.

A group of Kentucky archaeologists had an opportunity to explore one of the most historically important — yet least explored — sites in the New World: Jamestown, Va., and they did, mostly on their own time, in early November.

"We have an entire town, from 1607-1699, that hasn't been excavated," said David Givens, senior archaeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery project. "Generations of archaeology and study. It's the beginnings of America, in all kinds of ways."

The first permanent English settlement in the Americas, Fort James was established on the shore of the James River in 1607 in Virginia. The colony struggled, and many colonists died. If not for the help of the natives, Givens said, the colony probably would have been wiped out.

"Pocahontas brought food in 1608," he said. That was during the "Starving Time" of the first winter, when some colonists turned to cannibalism, according evidence found at the site.

Artifacts indicate there was significant interaction between the settlers and natives, including the powerful Powhatan Confederacy, Pocahontas' tribe, Givens said.

But there is still a tremendous amount about the settlement, rediscovered in 1994, to be unearthed.

Now, a chance encounter between Givens and vacationing Kentucky Transportation Cabinet employee Will Holmes, an archaeologist by training, has led to a collaboration that could preserve the site.

"Will's a techno geek; he likes the fancy instruments," said George Crothers, director of the William S. Webb Museum of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky and the state archaeologist.

Holmes and Transportation Cabinet archaeologist Carl Shields were eager to bring some of their advanced, noninvasive mapping techniques to Jamestown and floated the idea of a road trip to several colleagues.

UK grad student Phil Mink, who specializes in computer mapping with ground-penetrating radar, was on board. Crothers came along to collect magnetometer data, another technique for finding interesting areas in which to dig.

"It's one of those iconic sites in the U.S., the first permanent English settlements," Crothers said.

Stephen McBride, who is director of interpretation and archaeology at Camp Nelson Civil War Heritage Park in Nicholasville and specializes in historical period archaeology for the French and Indian War, also came along.

"Nobody was getting paid for this, just an effort at collaboration. It's just a great chance to work at a really cool site," said Shields, who ultimately wasn't able to make the trip because of a family emergency.

"Jamestown's a love for all of us. It's a job, but we're researchers as well," Givens said. "All of these guys are similar, in the pursuit of science, willing to do anything."

The Kentuckians drove nine hours to Jamestown on Nov. 1. But they couldn't get started right away because the ground was too wet.

"We decided to try running this thing (ground-penetrating radar) over the floor of the church, which was built for the 300th anniversary in 1907," Crothers said. "It had been rebuilt on top of an earlier church. It was common to bury people in the floor of the church ... so we just ran it over there to see what else might be down there."

The interior of the church, which was where the first representative democracy developed in the Americas in 1619, will be excavated in advance of the 400th anniversary of that event, and the results of their survey will be a big help, Givens said.

"There were three churches, one on top of the other, with burials inside there, and we don't know how they were originally excavated," he said. "The architectural remains that are there might give us clues as to what churches stood on that ground over time."

Eventually, the Kentuckians got to work outside, going over three large areas with the ground-penetrating radar — a machine that looks like a high-tech lawn mower — and working from sunup to sundown, with breaks for meals and bourbon tastings.

"The guys from Kentucky really ruined my taste for any other kind of bourbon," Givens said.

They found some interesting blips on the radar that merit further study, including a possible well. Since wells were often used later as trash dumps, this could be an archaeological gold mine.

But their work has larger ramifications, Givens said.

It "has great potential for future planning, not just for archaeology, but for preservation," he said. "It's not just about excavating, or finding a well, but finding things that might be in peril."

The English fort site is the richest "contact period" site known, Givens said. So far they have found 48,000 pottery sherds, or fragments, including many examples of colonists copying the work of the Virginia Indians, he said. But many sections haven't been explored, including Smithfield, where John Smith trained his men.

"That's an entire field, 3 acres, and we've no idea what's out there," Givens said.

While the church site, at 15 feet above sea level, is predicted to be safe as the water level rises, he said, "the rest of the town and everything else we hope to study will be in jeopardy."

The scientific research done by the Kentucky archaeologists was a boon.

"Jamestown is America's birthplace, and those things have a potential to affect how we do things here," Givens said. "We're a nonprofit. We couldn't afford this kind of work without these guys donating their time. They realized the gravity, and the potential for what they could do for this project. That drove them out here."

Crothers wants to go back and bring some students, and Shields hopes to make the trip this time.

"The seeds have been planted," Shields said.

Givens is working with the National Park Service, which controls the island on which the fort site sits, to come up with grant money to fund more research, building on the work done this month.

"We would love to bring the University of Kentucky back in a collaborative research grant that provides a much longer research potential between the two organizations," Givens said. "And because they have the best bourbon, really."