Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists Confirm Indoor Well Found Near Fort

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Senior Staff Archeologist Dave Givens takes a reading from the different levels of soil in the cellar with an x-ray fluorescence analyzer. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Senior Staff Archeologist Dave Givens takes a reading from the different levels of soil in the cellar with an x-ray fluorescence analyzer. (Elizabeth Hornsby/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 monthly feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort.

The Jamestown Rediscovery team continues to make progress excavating a cellar that was once part of a building immediately outside of the perimeter of the original James Fort.

Staff archaeologists have officially confirmed a structure inside the cellar is in fact a well, and they anticipate excavation will begin in the spring.

Senior archaeologist Danny Schmidt believes this well may be similar in several ways to the one found inside the boundaries of the fort. Though the latter was an open-air well – as opposed to being indoors and in a cellar – both appear to be square in shape and similarly lined to prevent mud leaking into the water supply.

Probes into the well, using a coring device borrowed from the College of William & Mary, have confirmed it was at one point filled in with debris, so the staff is hopeful they may recover some interesting discarded objects when the time comes to excavate.

“We want to be prepared for what we’ll find in there,” said Schmidt of the preparations that will take place in advance of excavating the well. “Some types of materials will begin to degrade quickly once we remove them, so from a conservation standpoint we want to have all our ducks in a row.”

Another ongoing investigation at the site of the cellar involves the use of a mobile x-ray florescence analyzer, which Bruker Elemental and Keifer Analytical Incorporated are loaning to the researchers for free.

Progress continues on the cellar outside of the perimeter of the original James Fort. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Progress continues on the cellar outside of the perimeter of the original James Fort. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

The analyzer is being used to take readings from the different levels of soil that form a wall around the cellar. It sends x-rays into the face of the excavation, and the presence of different elements sends back different luminescence “fingerprints,” according to Dave Kiefer, owner of Kiefer Analytical Inc., and Virginia representative for Bruker Elemental.

This technology is commonly used on artifacts to determine more about their make-up without having to break off pieces for more invasive analysis. It is used somewhat less frequently on soil readings, but it is still a valuable tool for confirming some of the previous conclusions archaeologists have drawn as they have studied the soil layers.

“All my life [as an archaeologist] we’ve been looking at soil in layers and drawing conclusions from the color and texture. It’s not really a science but more of an art,” said Dr. Bill Kelso, director of research and interpretation for Jamestown Rediscovery. “[Using an x-ray analyzer] is valuable when it reinforces our artistic decision, and it’s a great opportunity to experiment with new methods.”

So far the results from the x-ray have done just that, confirming what the staff archaeologists already suspected about the chemical make-up of the different layers of soil and giving them confidence to continue to probe.

As for new artifacts recovered from the cellar recently, the latest major find is a largely intact basket hilt, a sort of cage that would have surrounded the grip on a broadsword.

A basket hilt, which would have been used to guard the hand of someone wielding a broadsword, was recently recovered from the cellar. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
A basket hilt, which would have been used to guard the hand of someone wielding a broadsword, was recently recovered from the cellar. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

Basket hilts were used to protect the hand of the person wielding the sword and therefore were often made of durable iron.

As iron was less valuable than the steel that would have been used to make the swords themselves, it is more common for archaeologists to find a hilt than a sword since the steel was usually melted down and repurposed at some point.

This basket hilt is the 23rd to be found by Jamestown Rediscovery, and is well-preserved. Though it came out of the ground covered in rust, air abrasion and other techniques will be used in the coming months to clean the find and prepare it for preservation.

Going forward, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists will continue to excavate the cellar and prepare for the excavation of the well several months from now.