Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists Find Potential Book Cover in Cellar Pit

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Jamestown Rediscovery members use surveying equipment to record data about a cellar pit where excavations are underway. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Jamestown Rediscovery members use surveying equipment to record data about a cellar pit where excavations are underway. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

A team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia has been at work since 1994 uncovering the buried secrets of Jamestown.

When the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project started, the hope was to find the site of the original 1607 James Fort, which had been written off for more than 200 years as lost to shoreline erosion.

Since then, the team has discovered the fort and more than a million artifacts in the ground.

Jamestown Unearthed is a recurring feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort.

The archaeologists spent much of last year’s digging season excavating what is believed to be the cellar of a building which once stood near the church. It’s only the second dig outside the fort’s walls, where dozens of buildings are believed to have been built as the colonists outgrew the fort’s confines.

After months of work last year and in the first weeks of good weather in 2015, the team has found numerous artifacts near the bottom of what is known as the cellar’s trash layer — an area near the bottom of the pit where colonists discarded waste in the years after the founding of James Fort.

The biggest discovery so far is a piece of wood with several copper tacks driven through it in close proximity to one another. The find could be part of a book from the centuries before the founding of the fort, when covers were made of thick sheets of wood and housed small metal parts like locks and latches.

Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Archaeologist Danny Schmidt said work is underway now to determine what, if any, book the wood may have once housed. It’s also possible the wood could be part of a box or chest.

The team has not had any luck finding pages from the books that once existed at the fort. Common titles from the James Fort period include bibles, religious instructional materials and classics written in Greek or Latin.

The wood excavated from the cellar is pictured here beneath a protective wrapping of cheesecloth. The copper tacks can be seen puncturing the top of the cheesecloth. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
The wood excavated from the cellar is pictured here beneath a protective wrapping of cheesecloth. The copper tacks can be seen puncturing the top of the cheesecloth. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

The wood and paper from these books is mostly lost to time, however the copper tacks found in the wood from the pit have enabled the wood to survive, as copper prevents wood from rotting, according to Dan Gamble, the senior conservator with Jamestown Rediscovery.

Removing the wood piece from the ground required the archaeologists to cut out all of the dirt around it, leaving it encased in soil for its trip to the lab.

Once in the lab, Gamble took over the project to ascertain its purpose, wrapping it in cheesecloth and letting it sit for a time before beginning the arduous process of removing the soil from the wood without damaging anything.

Once the soil is gone, he will send photographs of the wood to the Museum of London and other sources to allow experts in artifacts from the past to try to identify its purpose.

The team has also found several pieces of armor and shards of brick and glass in the cellar, much of which remains to be unearthed. Despite their success finding artifacts, they have not yet identified the building’s purpose, but the clues are starting to add up.

For example, staining of dirt along the bottom of the cellar indicates there could have been a layer of boards on the ground that acted as a floor. Should that be confirmed, it will be the first time the team has discovered a building from the James Fort era with a wooden cellar floor.

There are also several erratic marks along the cellar’s edge indicating the placement of posts over time, but without a “smoking gun artifact” to use as a tool for dating the site, Schmidt said it will be difficult to determine the precise lifespan of the cellar.

What is clear is the cellar was one of the larger ones present during the James Fort period, measuring more than 22 feet in length. The team hopes it will learn more about the building’s use in the coming months as more of the cellar is excavated.

A video depicting the team’s work to excavate the cellar and the wooden piece is available on the Historic Jamestowne website.

Artifact Spotlight

The scale armor is currently housed in a device similar to a sandblaster to remove rust. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
The scale armor is currently housed in a device similar to a sandblaster to remove rust. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

Most of the men who settled James Fort brought armor from England.

In the first days of the fort, the settlers were on the lookout for a Spanish assault that never came. Later on, the armor was useful during conflicts with the Native American population.

Gamble has been spending dozens of hours in the lab working on a piece of armor excavated in 2005 from a building inside the fort’s walls.

The armor is a chest plate made of scaled metal. The style was common during the James Fort days and was often sewn into clothing. Its scales allowed the armor to be more breathable in hot, humid weather.

To restore the armor, Gamble has placed it in a device similar to a sandblaster. He is using the tool to blast rust off the metal, a painstakingly slow process as allowing the blaster to run too long on any part of the armor can permanently damage it. So far, he has invested about 80 hours into sandblasting the plate with another 80 hours to go.

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