Jamestown Unearthed: Conservators Hunt for Clues About Jamestown Church Bell

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Archaeologists at Jamestown have unearthed pieces of bells of all sizes, ranging from small sleigh bells to fragments large enough to have come from a ship's or church bell. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Archaeologists at Jamestown have unearthed pieces of bells of all sizes, ranging from small sleigh bells to fragments large enough to have come from a ship or church bell. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

This holiday season is all about bells for the archaeologists and conservators at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

Copper bells were a common decorative item in England, used on horses or in the homes of the wealthy to summon servants. Though these types of uses for bells were superfluous in the colony, many bells still made their way over to be traded with the local Native American tribes, who highly valued copper as a commodity.

Sleigh bells, school bells and especially church bells have become a particular point of interest in recent months as the Jamestown Rediscovery team turns its attention to 2019, the year they will celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown’s “Red Letter Year.”

The year 1619 included several historic moments for the early colony, such as the first representative legislative assembly session in the New World at the James Fort church, which was built in 1617.

The site of that church, which is currently home to the original 1639 church tower and a reconstruction of the 1617 church that includes the original foundation, will be the focal point for 2019 celebrations. As such, the Jamestown Rediscovery team is taking on several special initiatives to learn all they can about the building in the lead-up to the anniversary.

In addition to the ongoing virtual mapping project and the planned excavation of the church to begin in 2016, a focus has been trying to learn more about the bell that would have hung in the church tower in the early years of the colony.

The church bell would have been a sort of all-purpose alarm for the early settlers, calling them to daily services and even alerting them to trouble in the area.

“If any sort of alarm needed to be sounded, churches served as a calling point,” said Katharine Corneli, a conservator and curator with Jamestown Rediscovery.

Several bell fragments have been unearthed at various sites around the fort over the past decade, some of which fit together.

Two pieces in particular fit together in such a way as to give Corneli, who is leading the charge on researching the church bell, a sense of the dimensions of the bell from which they were derived. The bell of origin appears to have had a 15-inch diameter, making it a possible candidate for the church bell.

Corneli believes a bell with a 15-inch diameter may have been on the small side for a church bell, but it would not have been unusual for the colonists to use such a bell considering the logistical difficulties of transporting a larger one.

It is also possible the church bell served another purpose originally. Corneli currently favors the theory that the ship’s bell on one of the early voyages to the colony may have been removed and repurposed for use as the church bell, which would account for why archaeologists have not found any evidence of a large bell casting pit anywhere around the fort.

Last summer, the team identified five bell fragments large enough to be considered contenders for church bell fragments and handed them off to the labs at Colonial Williamsburg, where a group of experts has agreed to perform an in-depth analysis of the artifacts free-of-charge.

Analysis of the bell fragments involved the use of an X-ray fluorescence gun, which uses electrons to determine the precise metallic composition of the artifacts.

Though the full report on the bell fragments has not yet been generated, the Colonial Williamsburg team was able to shed some light on the objects from a cursory analysis. The most significant finding from the preliminary report was that these fragments were actually derived from three different bells.

As with many archaeological findings, new information tends to answer old questions and raise new ones. None of the three bells from which the fragments were derived can be eliminated as the possible church bell, but the discovery of pieces of so many different bells complicates the picture.

Corneli believes that bells of this size were unlikely to have been brought over for trade, which leaves two possibilities: Either they were part of a bell that served a specific purpose, of which there are few possibilities beyond ship’s bell or church bell, or they were brought to use as scrap metal.

While the English brought over much scrap metal to trade and recycle into new objects, Corneli thinks the bell pieces that fit together indicate they came over together as part of a single object, making it somewhat less likely they were intended for scrap.

The mystery of which one of the three bells is the church bell may never be conclusively solved. In fact, it is highly possible that none of them are the church bell, Corneli said.

“If there was a bell and it broke, it would have been recycled and its metal used for other purposes,” Corneli said. “We could never find it.”

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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. Click here to read past articles.