Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists complete excavation of 400-year-old cellar

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The cellar after the completion of its excavation. The wooden square, which was constructed by archaeologists, lines the well. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)
The cellar after the completion of its excavation. The wooden square, which was constructed by archaeologists, lines the well. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)

When archaeologists found a well outside the walls of the Jamestown colony in 2014, they hoped to learn a great deal about life within the walls from 17th-century artifacts they expected to find in the well.

After wrapping up the excavation of the well last week, which included excavation of the cellar in which it was built, archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery project admitted they did not find all the artifacts they expected. However, their findings were every bit as informative as they had hoped.

“There were very few artifacts in the well shaft,” said Senior Staff Archaeologist Danny Schmidt. “We’re used to finding artifacts in wells, but we have an explanation. What we found in the well was largely orange clay, which is redeposited soil. The colonists decided to cap the well and continue to use the cellar.”

Wells are typically a treasure trove for archaeologists, as items often fall into wells and are preserved largely intact for hundreds of years. In some cases, colonists stopped using wells for water, finding secondary uses for the space.

“These wells become trash pits,” said Schmidt. “What you have to remember is that the garbage man didn’t come by in 1607.”

The trash found in wells can provide several clues as to how the colonists lived their lives, he said.

“’Why a well in a cellar?’ is the common question from visitors,” said Schmidt.  “We really don’t know, but it’s possible that it’s the first well in Jamestown.”

It’s possible that the colonists may have expanded the cellar and dumped the excess clay into the well, he said. But why would the Jamestown colonists decide to plug it up?

One clue could be an unusual feature of the well, Schmidt said. There was no archaeological evidence that it was lined with bricks or barrel casks, as most of the other wells would have been.  Schmidt thinks that the well may have been among the first in Jamestown, which may have been why it lacked a lining and was capped.

The water in the well has seeped in from the ground surrounding it. The water table was between two and three feet lower 400 years ago than it is today, as the result of rising sea levels. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)
The water in the well has seeped in from the ground surrounding it. The water table was between two and three feet lower 400 years ago than it is today, as the result of rising sea levels. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)

“What may have happened was that they learned the hard way,” said Schmidt. “It may have been a very short-lived well…It was a learning experience because all of the other wells have been lined.”

Schmidt likened the colonists’ experience with the well to digging a hole on the beach, only to watch it collapse in on itself when the water table beneath the sand is reached. The well’s lack of lining may have doomed it from the start, which prompted the colonists to fill it in.

However, the cellar in which the well was built continued to be used even after the well was plugged, according to Schmidt.  Theories abound as to the purpose of the cellar, but all presume that the cellar was constructed during the expansion of the fort in 1608.

“In 1608 John Smith wrote they expanded the fort into a 5-square form, which is a pentagon, basically,” said Schmidt.  “The first pentagon in the new world.”

The team of archaeologists has discovered some clues as to the architecture of the cellar, as well as a structure constructed at ground level above it. While excavating the cellar, they found discolorations in the clay floor that — to archaeologists — indicate that post holes had once been erected.

“As archaeologists we have to get down to that level and find the orange clay. Wherever we don’t see that clay we know someone dug,” said Schmidt, “We’re looking for subtle contrasts between natural soil and disturbed soil. Sometimes you can feel the difference. Undisturbed soil is hard clay.”

The three post holes along the wall likely supported the ceiling above the cellar, according to Danny Schmidt. The larger hole next to the bucket was likely robust enough to support a much larger structure. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)
The three post holes along the wall likely supported the ceiling above the cellar, according to Danny Schmidt. The larger hole next to the bucket was likely robust enough to support a much larger structure. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily.)

There are two sets of post holes along the cellar’s floor. The edge of the cellar is lined with smaller post holes, which Schmidt says aren’t robust enough to support an entire building. Instead, these post holes likely supported a single story above the cellar.  In the middle of the cellar were much larger holes, whose posts were likely robust enough to support an above-ground structure.

“Of course when we get to the above ground world, we have to use our imagination and computer modeling,” said Schmidt.  A leading theory was that the cellar and anything above it were a defensive addition to the fort as a part of its 1608 expansion.

“The question is, is this a reinforcement blockhouse-type building configured in such a way to cover their flanks?” asked Schmidt. The cellar and the structure above it was likely built into the fort’s palisade, and was positioned between two bulwarks at corners of the fort. A defensive structure in this position would enhance the colonists’ ability to defend the fort from Native American attacks, he said.

Within the cellar’s basement, the team found armor and back plates, ceramics, German stoneware, and animal bones as food remains, including both wild and domesticated species. Schmidt says that this could be an indication that the cellar was in use long after the well was plugged.

“The earlier the architectural features, the more wild animals [bones] you see,” said Schmidt.  “As you move forward you see more domesticated animals.”

While the well contained few artifacts, the cellar as a whole contained an estimated 30,000 artifacts, according to the Jamestown Rediscovery team. While the cellar has been excavated, Schmidt and his team are already hard at work on new projects. They are currently excavating graves of colonists buried within the walls of the fort. The team will be using advanced methods to determine things such as the diet, age and cause of death, and the gender of the deceased.

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.