Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists explore tombs at center of 1901 woman-led dig

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The interior Memorial Church at Historic Jamestowne. Archaeologists Mary Anna Hartley and Bob Chartrand excavate along the northern wall to the left of the frame. The chancel- the holiest place in the church- lies in the background along the eastern wall. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
The interior Memorial Church at Historic Jamestowne. Archaeologists Mary Anna Hartley and Bob Chartrand excavate along the northern wall to the left of the frame. The chancel — the holiest place in the church –lies in the background along the eastern wall. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

In 1901, Mary Jeffery Galt and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities broke ground on the remnants of a 17th-century church in Jamestown.

More than a century later, a team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia are doing the same.

Their goal is to learn as much as they can about the historic churches that once sat upon the site — and the graves that lie underneath.

“The building dates to 1906, but it’s built on top of three historic churches starting in 1617,” said Preservation Virginia Field Supervisor Mary Anna Hartley.  “It’s a memorial building built on top of the foundations for the 1640s church that was reused in the 1680s.”

The current memorial church, which towers over the wooden walls of the fort, was built by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America. Previous churches were built on the same location in 1617, the 1640s and the 1680s, before being abandoned decades before the American Revolution.

Preservation Virginia dug a pit in the chancel where APVA dug more than a century ago. To the right of the frame is the Knight's Tomb, which archaeologists say likely marked the burial of a high-status colonist. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Preservation Virginia dug a pit in the chancel where APVA dug more than a century ago. To the right of the frame is the Knight’s Tomb, which archaeologists say likely marked the burial of a high-status colonist. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

For the time being, Hartley said, Preservation Virginia has stopped digging in the chancel — the holiest space in the church — reserved for the altar at the east end of the memorial church.

The team had been excavating a large section of the southeast corner of the church in the hopes of finding the remains of high-status colonists, whose status earned them a burial under the church’s most sacred space.

“We’ve gotten to an area where we can see in between the grave shafts in a couple of places,” Hartley said. “So we made the decision to stop, because we’re pretty close to where the remains might be.”

Prior to the construction of the memorial church, a team from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities excavated the previous churches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hartley said the APVA archaeologists also excavated the chancel — and their notes indicate they may not have put everything back in the same place as they found it. 

Two items the APVA moved were a Knight’s Tomb and a ledger stone, two large gravestones laid flat on the church floor. Both of the gravestones likely marked the final resting place of the colony’s bigwigs.

The Memorial church, built in the early 1900s. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
The Memorial church, built in the early 1900s. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

“Both of those ledger stones are placed in the cross-aisle [in front of the chancel] during that last church,” said Hartley. “The Knight’s Tomb is missing the brasses that tell who the tombstone relates to. I think those were gone before it was moved to this location.”

Hartley pointed out that there are many bricks crammed underneath the Knight’s Tomb stone, and the APVA likely did so to keep the heavy stones from settling more than the bricks around it.

Staff Archaeologist Danny Schmit said he thinks it’s possible that colonial governors George Yeardley or Lord de la Warre were buried underneath the chancel, and that their final resting spots were once marked by the Knight’s Tomb.

“These are in this case unmarked burials, where we don’t know where people would be,” Schmidt said.  “We have a rough idea because of the work done 100 years ago. You don’t know who they are. It’s not like a graveyard today…For us and the public it’s a research project to hopefully determine identities as well.”

Preservation Virginia will be consulting with the Smithsonian on moving the Knight’s Tomb in May in order to ensure it is not damaged. The Smithsonian’s Digitization Department will also run scans on the earth in the chancel before the archaeologists begin excavating what lies beneath — and Schmidt said he thinks they will find more burials.

“You’re going to learn about their lives, maybe their deaths or perhaps what diseases they had,” Schmidt said. “You’re also going to learn about the burial practices of the time.”

Archaeologist Bob Chartrand removes APVA backfill as he defines one of the church's many burial shafts. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Archaeologist Bob Chartrand removes APVA backfill as he defines one of the church’s many burial shafts. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Hartley added the earth beneath the tomb’s current location in front of the chancel has likely not been disturbed by archaeologists before — meaning what lies beneath may hold something not seen in centuries.

“These burials were only exposed to elements for approximately 150 years. They’ve been under a building or some kind of shelter which will definitely help the preservation,” Hartley said.  “We know that floor is intact, so all the soil underneath it has never been excavated by anyone. It’s intact from that church period. That’s exciting. That’s really exciting.”

Reviving a century-old dig

As Hartley and the Preservation Virginia team move on from the Chancel and continue to investigate the memorial church and the remnants of the older churches beneath it, they are working through the same soil, clay, cobbles and bricks as the APVA, more than a century later.

“It’s an assumption, but in theory, these are the same kinds of things they dug through,” said Archaeologist Danny Schmidt, who added that the APVA likely put the dirt they removed back in the church. “We can’t be sure of that, but it’s probable…It’s kind of unlikely somebody pulled up with a boatload of random dirt from some other place.”

A photo taken by the APVA during the excavation into Jamestown's churches in the early 20th century. (Courtesy The Valentine museum)
A photo taken by the APVA during the excavation into Jamestown’s churches in the early 20th century. (Courtesy The Valentine museum)

In fact, Hartley said Preservation Virginia has a century-old photo of APVA’s dig, featuring an open grave shaft. 

The team is currently digging in the same spot, and have uncovered what they believe is the same grave depicted in the photo.

“People are like, ‘What have you found?’ We’re only revealing what the past archaeologists have found,” Hartley said. “We’re only removing their backfill to expose what they were seeing in 1901 and 1902.  I don’t think we’ve exposed anything too much more than they had already found as of yet because that’s the starting point for, ‘well, what is that?’ and interpreting it.”

Schmidt said that one of the challenges faced by the Preservation Virginia team is sifting through earth and architecture excavated by previous archaeologists.

“That’s another thing we’re doing- figuring out what they found 100 years ago,” said Schmidt.  “Archaeology of archaeology is a good way to put it.”

Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett holds a tray of artifacts removed from the floor of the church. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett holds a tray of artifacts removed from the floor of the church. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Assistant Curator Hayden Bassett said he sifts through the material archaeologists removed from the church. The material is often a mix of various periods of time- “Everything from Virginia Indian to 1978.” 

Therefore, sifting through the material can be both illuminating and confounding.

“We’re seeing evidence for the 1617 church floor, the 1640s Church floor, the 18th century floor, everything,” said Bassett.  “It’s all mixed up, kind of an amalgamation of 400 years….What we can say is that is that once we get to the depth where the mix stops, that’s where we know the APVA stopped in 1901. That’s the informative part of this.”

Once archaeologists reach that depth, they will be able to uncover artifacts and architecture not seen since colonial times.

“The main thing we want to know is how much did they [APVA] leave intact and not disturb,” Schmidt said. “Archaeological methods of both excavation and recording has obviously improved exponentially in 100 years. The hope going into this is that there would be areas that have not been fully excavated” by APVA.

The trench that runs along the northern wall reveals the foundation of a 17th-century church. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
The trench that runs along the northern wall reveals the foundation of a 17th-century church. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Bassett pointed out that trenches covered in glass run along the north and south walls of the memorial church, which allow guests to see the foundation of the 1640 church. 

Hartley said that Preservation Virginia has recently come across remains of the 1617 church in the northern trench.

“Underneath the glass in here on both sides we had the cobblestone steppings slash foundation for the 1617 church, and that’s the main focus of our excavations is to try and find remnants of that church,” Hartley said.

She added that in recent weeks she had removed concrete laid as part of the memorial church a century ago. Doing so revealed segments of the 1617 cobblestone foundation.

“The concrete we just pulled up here [along the north wall] exposed more of the clay in which the cobbles were laid in,” Hartley said.  “This is all brand-new evidence that was not exposed until yesterday.  There are spots — little cavities — that’s where a cobble was.”

Archaeologists have begun excavating the northwest corner of the church. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Archaeologists have begun excavating the northwest corner of the church. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

What was never found

While the APVA reported finding small segments of the original church’s foundation along the north wall, Hartley said they never reported finding the original foundation of the east or west walls. 

Hartley also explained that Preservation Virginia has begun excavating the northwest corner of the church, to the left of the entrance, partly in the hopes of finding the western edge of the original church.

“We have theories that the 1640s church was built up around the 1617 church. Without seeing parts of the ends we can’t prove that one way or another,” Hartley said. “Stuff to the south, maybe in front of the doorway here, is probably going to be a lot more intact. If we see any evidence of a west wall it’s probably going to be south of where we are.”

One intact remnant Preservation Virginia discovered was an arch under the front of the church.  According to Hartley, that was likely for drainage, and was an artifact the APVA never reported finding.

Schmidt and Hartley agreed that the Preservation Virginia team will continue to search for architectural and human remains that have sat undisturbed since America hailed to the British Crown.

“Archaeologically, it’s pretty painstaking when you do find sections that are preserved. You can’t be too aggressive or you’ll miss things,” Schmidt said.  “It’s delicate work.”

 

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.