Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists explore 400-year-old church

“Jamestown Unearthed” is a monthly feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort.

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The Historic Jamestown Church stands near the eastern corner of the fort along the James River. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

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Archaeologists in Historic Jamestowne have commenced excavations on the fort’s church in the hopes of finding the remains of high-status colonists.       

Team members of Preservation Virginia have dug a two-foot deep, six-by-ten foot hole in the eastern corner of the church’s brick floor. According to Preservation Virginia Archaeologist Danny Schmidt, the hole has been dug in the chancel at the front of the church.

“The chancel is the space reserved for the communion table,” said Schmidt.  “It’s the most sacred space of the church.”

The church was initially excavated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, said Schmidt, by a team from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities led by the association's founder and vice president Mary Jeffery Galt. Galt and her team of amateur archaeologists uncovered human remains buried in the very same chancel that is being excavated today.

“Potentially the first set of remains they found, they removed,” said Preservation Virginia Field Supervisor Mary Anna Hartley. “It’s a mystery as to what they did with them. We haven’t encountered other remains yet.”

It's possible Galt's team buried the remains elsewhere -- or they may have buried the remains in the chancel itself, which means the Preservation Virginia crew could come across the remains during their excavation, Hartley said. 

Hartley said Galt and her team encountered the remains of as many as 20 people in the chancel, and they began finding remains at a depth of three feet. Preservation Virginia is currently digging through backfill that was dug up and redeposited by Galt more than a century ago.

Schmidt said he believes there is “a very good chance” Virginia’s first governor, Lord de la Warre, may have been buried in the chancel, as burials in the chancel were reserved for high-status individuals. De la Warre died at sea on his way to Jamestowne in 1618, and his final resting place has long been unknown, said Schmidt. However, a recently-discovered court deposition indicated that his remains were brought directly to the Jamestowne colony.

“He would be as high-status as they would come,” said Schmidt. “He would be the most important Englishman to die at that time. We’re assuming he would warrant burial at that chancel.”

The researchers from Preservation Virginia have uncovered hundreds of artifacts from the chancel already, including pottery, nails, tobacco pipe stems, glass, a fragment of a sword hanger hook and a possible armor fragment, said Schmidt. The artifacts are currently being cleaned and cataloged.

According to Schmidt, another challenge facing the team is the fact they are not excavating just one church -- they’re digging into three. The church that currently stands was constructed in 1906 as a memorial and was built by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities on top of the foundation of the colonial church.

“We really want to learn more about the first church, the true dimensions and the date of the tower,” said Schmidt. He said the tower that stands at the entrance of the church is original, but it is not known when it was built.

The first Jamestowne church was initially constructed near the eastern corner of the fort in 1617 and was the site of the first English-speaking representative government in the new world in 1619, said Schmidt.

Schmidt said there is documentary evidence from 1639 that funds were being raised for the construction of a brick church on the same location, which was constructed in the 1640s. While digging into the chancel, Hartley said they uncovered the foundation of the 1640s church. She said they hope to learn more about the current memorial church and the 1640 church that preceded it during the excavation.

“We’re going to be messing a lot more with this foundation and seeing how it interacts with the older one,” said Hartley.

Jamestowne was burned during Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 and the second church was severely damaged, while the full extent of the damage is not known, said Schmidt. However, the church continued to be used long after the fire.

“This is an active church space from 1617 to 1750,” said Schmidt. “There are still services being held here after Jamestowne is no longer the capitol.”

The Jamestowne church was abandoned and eventually fell into decay when the parish moved to a site upriver.

Schmidt and Hartley said they are hoping to find remains of the 1617 church as they continue to dig. The Preservation Virginia team is aiming to have answers in time for the 1619 commemoration of the first representative government in what is now the United States.

In the meantime, said Schmidt, “It’s fun to have mysteries.”

 

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.