Jamestown Unearthed: Graves reveal life and death during dawn of colony

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An aerial view of the graves that were excavated in 2004. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery.)
An aerial view of the graves that were excavated in 2004. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project.)

The Jamestown Rediscovery Project completed their excavation of a cellar outside of the walls of the fort earlier this month, and they are already on to their next project — just in time for Halloween.

The project involves excavating graves from a cemetery inside the first English settlement in the new world.

Between 2004 and 2008 archaeologists discovered graves just inside the walls along the southwest corner of the fort.  They counted 34 grave shafts and are now exploring these time capsules from the colony’s infancy.

“The difficult thing for people to understand is that we can discover the graves without digging,” said Bill Kelso, director of research and interpretation at Jamestown Rediscovery.

“We can tell it’s a grave because of the outlines of the disturbed soil,” which contrasts the soil around it, he added.

Archaeologists have already made one discovery — the Jamestown settlers were doubling up on graves.

The cemetery sits just within the fort's wooden palisade. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery.)
The cemetery sits just within the fort’s wooden palisade. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)

“We have excavated three grave shafts and found five bodies,” said Danny Schmidt, senior staff archaeologist with Jamestown Rediscovery.  “The double burials make sense because sometimes two people die in a short period of time, and they’re trying to save energy.”

As Jamestown clung to its meager existence after its founding in 1607, digging one grave for two corpses could save energy for colonists that could hardly afford to spare any.

“We know from documents that only 38 men were left alive out of the original 104 by the fall of 1607,” Kelso said.

The settlers dealt with diseases such as “bloody flux” — which researchers believe may have been dysentery — as well as attacks from Native Americans, both of which thinned the colony’s numbers.

“We excavated a 14-year-old boy who had a Native American arrowhead next to his leg [bone] and injuries to his shoulder,” Schmidt said.

While diseases and attacks took their toll, they were not the biggest threat faced by the early colonists.

“The main thing was, people starved to death,” Kelso said.  “Their provisions either went bad or ran out.  This wasn’t solved for 10 years.”

The cemetery as seen in 2004. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery.)
The cemetery as seen in 2004. Only a few of the graves were excavated at the time.  (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)

While there was ample room to bury the dead outside of the fort, according to the two archaeologists, the colonists had a good reason to construct the cemetery behind the fort’s tall wooden palisade.

“In 1606, the colonists were instructed by the Virginia Company, above all things, not to let the Indians know your casualties,” Schmidt said. “If you start to die, hide your dead. Don’t let them know that you are weak.”

The Jamestown Rediscovery project has been able to date the cemetery to the very first years of the colony. Kelso said that one structure the team can date to 1610 was built on top of the cemetery, which must mean the bodies were buried there before its construction.

While disease, Native American raids and malnutrition pushed the colony to the brink of collapse, none of these threats could prevent the archaeological evidence from surviving to the present day.

“After 400 years in the Virginia clay, going back and forth between wet and dry conditions will break down skeletal remains,” Schmidt said.

According to Schmidt, a general rule is that the long bones in the limbs, as well as the cranium and dentition, typically remain. These artifacts can allow archaeologists to determine the deceased’s sex as well as their age at death.

The archaeologists will also be utilizing the latest scientific tools to determine as much as possible about the human remains. Jamestown Rediscovery has partnered with the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian to conduct stable isotope analysis of their findings.

According to Kelso, scientists can use this method of chemical analysis to view the levels of oxygen and carbon isotopes within bones they’ve unearthed.  The analysis of bone isotopes can indicate the diets of the early settlers. For example, high levels of C-3 carbons indicate the wheat-based diets of English settlers, and C-4 carbons are the result of the corn-based diets of 17th-century Native Americans.

“Evidently you are what you eat because if you’re coming off the boat your carbon indicates a wheat-based diet,” Schmidt said.

Kelso said that the field work may be finished in the coming days; however, the biomedical tests may take months. He also said he hopes that their archaeological and forensic findings — in conjunction with colonist journals — will allow Jamestown Rediscovery to learn a great deal more about the lives and deaths of the initial settlers.

“We can find their cause of death and maybe even identify them,” said Kelso.

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.