Jamestown Founders Discovery Makes Prestigious ‘Top 10’ List

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Jamestown dig site - crop
The discovery of the bodies of four Jamestown founders made Archeology magazine’s year-end “Top 10” list for important finds around the world. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery)

For the third time in six years, Historic Jamestowne has made Archaeology magazine’s year-end “Top 10 Discoveries” list.

The magazine named this summer’s announcement of the discovery of the graves of four Jamestown founders was named one of the most significant discoveries worldwide of 2015, which is a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America. It joins other prestigious international finds like the discovery of a “missing link” human ancestor in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“This year’s Top 10 Discoveries reach us from vastly different cultures and across eons,” the article reads. “Some raise new questions about what it means to be human and what separates us from our species’ relatives. Others bring us face to face with individual people, their travels, their faith, their hold on power.”

The four founders burial site was discovered beneath the chancel of the first church on Jamestown Island, which was built in 1608 and destroyed in 1616.

Jamestown Rediscovery – the team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia that has been at work on the site since 1994 – partnered with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to discover the identities of four of the founders:

  • The Rev. Robert Hunt, Jamestown’s first Anglican minister and founder of the church
  • Capt. Gabriel Archer, the man considered by historians to be John Smith’s nemesis
  • Sir Ferdinando Wianman, a knight who came to the fort with Lord De la Warr
  • Capt. William West, a nephew of De la Warr.

When the discovery was announced July 28 in Washington D.C., it quickly made international headlines. Part of the discovery’s appeal was that, while it answered some longstanding questions about the specific location of the chancel and the leadership of the early settlement, it also raised new mysteries.

The small silver box found buried with Archer was a particular point of interest, as archaeologists and historians believe it to be a reliquary, or a container for holy relics. Reliquaries are typically associated with Catholicism, which makes it a surprising artifact to find on the body of the ostensibly Anglican Archer.

The Jamestown Rediscovery team believes the artifact is either a rare Anglican reliquary or a token of Archer’s secret Catholicism.

“It may be that ultimately we’re never going to know for sure whether it’s a personal Catholic item or the spiritual sacred expression of the 1608 [Anglican] church,” said James Horn, an academic historian in charge of the project.

It was this find’s ability to both provide new answers and raise new questions that secured it a place on the Top 10 List, as was also the case with the previous two Jamestown discoveries to make the list.

The first discovery at the fort to make Archaeology magazine’s top 10 was the remains of the first Protestant church in North America, built in 1608 and found in 2010.

Jamestown Rediscovery followed up this momentous find with shocking discovery of evidence of cannibalism at the fort in 2013.

In the top 10 list’s nine-year history, Historic Jamestowne is the only site to make the list three times, earning it recognition as “perhaps the United States’ most consistently prolific archaeological site” in the magazine’s write-up.

“I think we have known Jamestown is internationally important for a while, but it’s great to have that confirmed in another opinion,” said Bill Kelso, director of research and interpretation for Jamestown Rediscovery. “It was an honor to see the other sites that were listed with us.”

The bodies and the artifacts that were found with them will continue to be studied and researched for the time being, but Kelso also confirmed there are eventual plans to memorialize the men whose graves were disturbed.

“These burials were meant to be eternal, but they weren’t,” Kelso said. “The church didn’t last.”

Though the team at Jamestown is delighted with the find and the recognition it has received, they do not plan to rest on their laurels. The year 2016 will see a major excavation of the site of the church, which was where the first legislative assembly in the English New World was held in 1619. This project is being undertaken as part of the preparations for that event’s 400th anniversary in 2019.

With that significant occasion just around the corner and this groundbreaking year under its belt, the team is hopeful that visitors from all over the country and the world will be encouraged to continue to visit the site.

“It’s extremely important for us to be recognized like this, to reinforce the importance of Jamestown,” Kelso said. “We are world-renowned. I think every American should visit Jamestown.”