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James Horn has had a deep interest in the first English settlements on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries since he began his career.
More than 35 years later, the career academic and researcher is now in charge of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.
Since his earliest days in academia, he has been focused on life in the “far-flung English colonies” of the Chesapeake Bay area in the first part of the 17th century. He has authored four books on the topic, and as of Feb. 1, he is overseeing the team of archaeologists working on the Jamestown Rediscovery Project to excavate the first English settlement on Jamestown Island.
Now that he has settled in as the full-time director of the project, Horn has developed a vision for the project to carry it through the next five years.
At the top of his agenda is getting the island listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a significant site. He has joined with the National Park Service — which owns much of Jamestown Island — to take the first step to placement on the list by submitting the island for inclusion on the U.S. list of potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Should the island become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it would join a hallowed pantheon of sites across the globe, including the Taj Mahal, the historic sites of Rome and Machu Pichu. Horn said inclusion on the list tends to boost visitorship to a site by as much as 30 percent, which would be a boon to both the nonprofit project’s archaeological work and the Historic Triangle.
Horn took that first step with NPS in March, about a month after he started as the full-time director of the project. He had previously worked for Colonial Williamsburg as its vice president of research and historical interpretation and the O’Neill Director of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library. While in that role, he coordinated research into how Colonial Williamsburg should accurately craft its interpretation of history.
That position also had him overseeing the project during a five-year partnership between Colonial Williamsburg and Preservation Virginia, the nonprofit behind the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.
That partnership ended in December. Horn left Colonial Williamsburg and transitioned to full-time director of the new Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, a position that along with providing oversight of archaeological operations also requires him to oversee fundraising and operations at the site.
His experience with Colonial Williamsburg connected him with Lisa Fischer, the director of the Digital History Center at the living history museum. He has since hired her away from Colonial Williamsburg to come to the Jamestown Rediscovery Project to spearhead a new center for digital initiatives.
That center will help the project overcome one of its major challenges — depicting life in the early 17th-century colony without building elaborate replicas of buildings or using costumed interpreters. Visitors to the project currently see archaeologists at work excavating building sites from the James Fort period.
Horn said the James Fort area will never play host to re-created buildings like at the nearby Jamestown Settlement, as that is too cost-prohibitive and is not in line with the archaeological mission at the heart of the project. Jamestown constantly changed during the first decades of English settlement, and a reconstruction would also only capture one snapshot of the settlement’s varied life.
Instead, the digital center will create detailed 3-D renderings of the fort throughout its lifetime, from the first days the walls were up to when it was expanded to five sides in 1608 to when growth spilled outside the walls and created a town.
The digital work will also eventually allow visitors to explore the archaeology that uncovered the fort. Renderings will be created to show what an archaeological dig looks like. Those renderings would allow visitors to click through layers of dirt and check out artifacts that have been found during the more than 20 years of archaeology at the site. He sees the digital initiative as useful for both the general public and students.
“You might find an artifact, and you can click on it and it’s a piece of armor and as the archeologists remove it and take it to conservation you can follow the whole process, from the initial discovery to its emergence in terms of exhibition quality,” Horn said.
He wants to incorporate mobile technology into the digital initiative, too. Eventually, guests will be able to point their phone at a point on the island and scroll through the renderings of what previously existed at the site. He anticipates it will take at least three years before the digital initiatives are ready for public rollout.
Horn is also hopeful he will be able to start a pair of research centers in conjunction with NPS, which operates the visitor center on the island where the centers would be established.
One center would detail the cultures and legacies of the Native Americans who lived in the area during the initial period of English settlement. The Jamestown Rediscovery Project is close to a partnership with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe that would allow the two groups to exchange research and artifacts.
“This Indian research center will be another way of underlining the important Indian context of European settlement here,” he said.
The other center, called the First Africans Project, will explore the lives of the first Africans brought to the English settlements in the Chesapeake Bay. The history of slavery along with its cultural legacy will feature prominently in the center.
Horn wants to have both of these centers operational by late next year.
In the long term, Horn plans to have the archaeologists excavate the site of Jamestown’s original church and the site where the first statehouse was built. He wants to have that work underway in time for the 2019 commemoration, which will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first meeting of representative government in the new world in 1619 at the Jamestown Church.
The Jamestown Rediscovery Project is located on the southwestern tip of Jamestown Island. Visitors to the Historic Jamestowne site have access to both the NPS visitors center and the project’s land, which is connected to it via footpath. Archaeologists are constantly at work during the warmer months, and visitors to the site can observe their labor firsthand.
The project also operates the Nathalie P. & Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, where visitors can see artifacts the team has removed from the ground. The Jamestown Rediscovery Project has been underway since 1994, when it was started by Archaeologist William Kelso.