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Cannibalism at Jamestown Makes Top 10 List of Archaeological Discoveries for 2013

A facial reconstruction of Jane. (Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

A facial reconstruction of Jane. (Photo courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)

Jamestown “Jane” is back in the spotlight as the editors of “Archaeology” magazine have named her one of the top 10 archaeological discoveries of 2013.

“Colonial Cannibalism” is one of three U.S. discoveries on the “Archaeology” magazine’s top 10 discoveries list, joining discoveries in England, Republic of Georgia, Italy, Peru, Ireland, Cambodia, Egypt and Germany.

The magazine, produced by the Archaeological Institute of America, has recognized Historic Jamestowne in the past. In 2010, the uncovering of the 1608 church site and the likely site of Pocahontas’ wedding to John Rolfe both made the top 10 discoveries list.

“To me it means that Jamestown is a world-class site. To make a discovery that makes that top 10 … it’s pretty incredible that we are seen as that level and that Jamestown is significant,” said Dr. Bill Kelso, chief archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. “It’s a very significant archaeological site. So I’m excited about that.”

Jamestown has been listed in “National Geographic” and “Smithsonian” magazines, but neither is specifically geared toward archaeology.

“The original site of Jamestown is extremely important to American society. Anything that will remind people of that is certainly a welcome event,” Kelso said.

Kelso, also a historian, had read several documents about survival cannibalism and Jamestown years ago, but  did not mention them when he wrote his own book, “Jamestown: The Buried Truth.”

Kelso said until the latest discovery, he believed the mentions of survival cannibalism in historical accounts of life at Jamestown were not real and were politically motivated.

Since the 17th century there have been rumors about cannibalism at Jamestown, but no concrete proof had ever been uncovered. That changed in 2012 when scientists uncovered skeletal remains of a 14-year-old English girl they nicknamed “Jane.”

“Even though the story is pretty grim, it shows what windows archaeology can open on whatever aspect of history you’re looking at,” Kelso said, referencing “The tragic as well as the triumphs.” With Jane’s listing, Jamestown has now made the top 10 discoveries in “Archaeology” for a tragedy and a triumph.

“The story has become much clearer because of that … as a historian, I probably would say this has been the most significant find because it answers what had been an enigma about Jamestown,” Kelso said.

Jane’s discovery has provided credibility to accounts of those living at James Fort in the 17th century — that was something the documents previously lacked. Kelso said he can now fully believe in the veracity of the documents.

Additionally, finding proof of survival cannibalism illustrated how close Jamestown came to failing.

“Had it failed, and I don’t do what-if history, I just think the English would have given up trying,” Kelso said. Instead, the English would likely have gone on to the West Indies, leaving America open to being settled by the French, Spanish or Dutch.

The discovery of Jane’s remains was kept from the public until May, when the findings were revealed. Pieces of Jane’s skull, jaw bone, tibia and teeth were found in a trash pit as a 1608 building was excavated. The bones bore several cut marks.

Four clear-cut marks on Jane’s skull were in close proximity to each other, indicating they were not accidental but a sign of butchery; Jane was determined to be dead prior to being butchered. Jane’s skull had been split from behind and her left temporal bone showed cut marks from a knife being shoved into the head to extract the brain.

“Who knows what happened to the rest of this poor girl?” Kelso asked.

Despite not knowing, the archaeologists at Jamestown are not searching for Jane. There is an excavation plan in place that has an overarching goal to find out how the fort was built, how it was expanded and how people were living in different areas of the fort. For 20 years, archaeologists have been working toward achieving this goal.

In addition to Jane, the other discoveries on “Archaeology” magazine’s top 10 discoveries list were:

  • “Richard III’s Last Act,” Leicester, England: Skeletal remains of King Richard III, who reigned from 1483 to 1485, were found under a parking lot by University of Leicester Archaeological Services in September.
  • “Homo erectus Stands Alone,” Dmanisi, Republic of Georgia: A 1.8 million-year-old skull found in Dmanisi in 2005 could lead to the ancient hominin species being recategorized.
  • “Roman Buildings Grow Up,” Gabii, Italy: A building complex found in Gabii dates to the fourth or third century B.C. and may be the earliest Roman monumental construction.
  • “A Wari Matriacrhy?” Castillo de Huarmey, Peru: Archaeologists uncovered a tomb encasing three or four Wari Empire royal women and their 40 noblewomen, seven sacrifices and more than 1,300 artifacts.
  • “Oldest Bog Body,” County Laois, Ireland: The body of a man who lived around 2000 B.C. was found in the Cashel Bog and is the oldest body with flesh to be found in Europe.
  • “North America’s Oldest Petroglyphs,” Winnemucca Lake, Nv.: Petroglyphs dating to more than 10,000 –possible 15,000– years ago were found on rocks in the Winnemucca Lake basin.
  • “Remapping the Khmer Empire,” Siem Reap Province, Cambodia: Using a laser-light mapping system, scientists mapped the Angkor region, what was once the thriving center of the Khmer Empire.
  • “World’s Oldest Port,” Wadi el-Jarf, Egypt: An underground storage system closed to the Red Sea revealed boat, pottery and rope fragments from the reign of the 4th Dynasty King Khufu, who ruled from 2551 to 2528 B.C.
  • “Critter Diggers,” Stolpe, Germany; Cumbria, England and San Diego, Calif.: In Germany, a badger uncovered nine 900-year-old burials; burrowing mole sin England found evidence of Roman life at Whitley Castle; and mine-hunting dolphins in San Diego found a 19th century Howell torpedo.

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Posted by on December 26, 2013. Filed under James City Govt,Local News,Wmbg Govt Notebook. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

2 Responses to Cannibalism at Jamestown Makes Top 10 List of Archaeological Discoveries for 2013

  1. Tom Reply

    December 30, 2013 at 6:34 am

    The article shows how archeology can really uncover the truth of history. One can only imagine how desperate the situation was for the first settlers. Thanks for the article.

  2. Jeff Reply

    December 26, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Wonderful article, well written. Since I’ve got a few days off for the holidays, I think a trip to Jamestown is in order. Thanks.

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