Jamestown Unearthed: Field school brings swarm of activity to Jamestowne

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Regular visitors to Historic Jamestowne may have noticed an explosion of activity in recent weeks. The arrival of the annual cohort of field school archeologists marks one of the busiest times of year for the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, and this year is no exception.

Jamestown Rediscovery is currently hosting a group of 14 field school students. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)
Jamestown Rediscovery is currently hosting a group of 14 field school students. (Adrienne Berard/WYDaily)

For six weeks in May and June, Historic Jamestowne is host to over a dozen budding archeologists, many of whom are looking to experience the practical realties of archeology before committing to a career in the field.

“It’s the first hands-on experience for most of them,” said Danny Schmidt, a senior staff archeologist with the project. “It’s a really good experience to see if this is really what they want to do.”

The school is run through a program at the University of Virginia, and this year’s cohort is comprised of 14 students from “all walks of life,” according to Schmidt. The group includes undergraduate students, graduate students and even people with established careers in other fields who are interested in learning more about archeology, often as a result of time spent volunteering at Historic Jamestowne.

Holy Ground

The sudden surplus of manpower that comes with the arrival of the field school students means the archeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery have the opportunity to expand their investigations into previously unexplored parts of the site. This year’s group is focusing their efforts on a section of ground just outside the southern wall of Jamestown Church.

The Jamestown Rediscovery team had been interested in learning more about the churchyard for some time, according to Schmidt. Jamestown Church has seen many changes and developments in its long history, and the artifacts found in the churchyard reflect pieces of that history.

A Spanish coin found in the churchyard dig that appears to be from the reign of King Philip IV. (Courtesy Danny Schmidt)
A Spanish coin found in the churchyard dig that appears to be from the reign of King Philip IV. (Courtesy Danny Schmidt)

The original Jamestown Church was built in 1608 inside the boundary of the original James Fort. In 1617, the church moved to roughly the location where the reconstructed church visitors can see today currently stands – just outside the boundary of the original fort, inside the area that would have comprised the first expansion of the fort.

In the 1630s the church was rebuilt and slightly widened on the same site, and around 1676 the church burned and had to be rebuilt again to some degree, Schmidt said. That final iteration of the church on this site lasted until the mid-1700s, when it was abandoned and eventually destroyed.

The “modern” reconstructed church, which Schmidt notes has actually become of historical interest since it is now over a century old, was erected in 1907. The original foundation of the 1617 church is still visible beneath the glass floor of the reconstruction.

“A Window Into James Fort”

With all of this building and rebuilding, the Jamestown Rediscovery team predicted they would find rubble and debris from various stages of the church’s life in the churchyard. Though their search has turned up plenty of artifacts on that front, they also hoped they might find evidence of another building in the vicinity of the church, built during the first expansion period – a wish that did not end up becoming reality.

“It’s actually a bit void,” Schmidt said of the lack of major structural finds at the field school site.

The team is somewhat mystified about the lack of other buildings discovered thus far in the area that made up the first fort expansion, Schmidt said, which is why they were hoping to unearth evidence of another structure during this dig.

An aerial before-and-after photo of the field school dig site. (Courtesy Danny Schmidt)
An aerial before-and-after photo of the field school dig site. (Courtesy Danny Schmidt)

Though they did not find the imprint of another building, Schmidt remains enthusiastic about what the field school students are turning up. Much like the recent excavations of a well that failed to turn up a large number of artifacts, this dig is “not about what you find, but what you find out.”

“[The field school students] are opening yet another window into James Fort,” Schmidt said.

In addition to lots of brick rubble and building materials, a few other noteworthy finds have been unearthed in recent weeks. One of the most interesting things about the site, according to Schmidt, is the range of time periods represented among the artifacts. James Fort-era objects like fragments of the type of German stoneware vessels popular among the colonists are turning up alongside 5,000-year-old American Indian artifacts and pennies from the 1980s.

The lack of evidence of a building on the site and the impressive range in the timeline of discovered artifacts are more related than they first appear. Schmidt says that, because little was built or farmed there, the earth is relatively undisturbed as compared to other areas in and around the fort. This means the prehistoric, undisturbed dirt is closer to the surface.

“Visitors always say ‘How deep do you dig,’” Schmidt said, laughing. “And we say ‘We dig as deep as they did.”

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