Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists begin conservation of knight’s tombstone

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The Knight’s Tombstone sits on a table, where archaeologists from Preservation Virginia will work to conserve the monument. It was broken into many pieces more than 100 years ago- but archaeologists are unsure exactly when or why. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne are digging into one of the greatest mysteries of the first English settlement in America: a knight’s tombstone that has been laying on the floor of a church for nearly four centuries.

The tombstone posed several mysteries for the Preservation Virginia team. Whose grave does it mark?  What steps should be taken to preserve the damaged stone? And how will the team lift the roughly 1,200 pound stone onto a stable work surface without further damage — or injury?

Preservation Virginia saw the need to seek help from an outside expert to offer guidance on moving and preserving the stone. While the archaeologists have experience working with centuries-old artifacts, they had never worked on an artifact the size of the knight’s tomb.

“This is kind of out of the realm of what we in the conservation department are doing,” said Preservation Virginia Senior Staff Archaeologist Michael Lavin. “It is an artifact, but it is more of a monument. One of the most important things for us is knowing our limitations. We’re archaeological conservators. It’s a completely different field than monuments conservation.”

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Jonathan Appel (right) and a Preservation Virginia archaeologist chisel concrete and mortar away from the stone itself. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Lavin added, “The things we hold are never this heavy.”

Conserving stone 

Lavin and the team contracted Jonathan Appell of Atlas Preservation to direct the movement of the stone. Appell said he has worked at historic sites outside of Hartford, Conn., whose stones date to the 1640s. He has also worked on conservation projects at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in New York. He installed monuments and obelisks as tall 20 feet in the 1980s and 90s before moving into historic conservation.

His resume and confidence convinced Lavin, but just as important were Appell’s willingness to train the Preservation Virginia archaeologists in conservation techniques.

“The thing I do that is different is that I don’t just tell people things, I work with them,” Appell said.  “This is right up my alley. I collaboratively work with people…Whatever needs people have I will blend in and work with them and complement their skills.”

He added that the Preservation Virginia archaeologists are very skilled, but lacked the specified experience in dealing with large tombstones.

Jonathan Appel (gray shirt) and the Preservation Virginia team used wooden levels and a wooden ramp to move the Knight's Tomb from its spot on the church floor to a place where conservation work can be done. (Courtesy Hayden Bassett)
Jonathan Appel (gray shirt) and the Preservation Virginia team used wooden levels and a wooden ramp to move the Knight’s Tomb from its spot on the church floor to a place where conservation work can be done. (Courtesy Hayden Bassett/Preservation Virginia)

The first challenge the team faced was moving the massive stone off the church floor and onto a surface where they could begin to conserve it. The stone was cracked into several large pieces which made the process easier; however, nearly half the stone remained in one piece, which required special rigging from Appell to move.

“It took a lot of muscling and time and wedging and prying to slowly move it up the ramp,” said Mary Anna Hartley, Preservation Virginia Field Supervisor. “Each of the pieces were light enough for one or two people to lift it onto the cart, except that last part took about five.”

Appell said he and other propped the largest stone piece up against the church wall, then built a wooden platform beneath it. The stone was carefully lowered onto the platform, which was leveraged up the wooden ramp.

“It was a little tense, I was definitely sweating,” Appell said.  “It was a pretty intense short time period.  It was a complete success. I didn’t see any one moment where it was really scary.”

Appell added 100 Historic Jamestowne guests were present in the church to watch the team move the tombstone.

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The light gray and tan concrete and mortar forms a skirt around the tombstone, and stands in contrast to the dark gray stone. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

A tedious process

The tombstone now sits on a large cart inside the church, where Appell has led the archaeologists in preservation. The pieces of the broken stone were sealed together with concrete by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in the first decade of the 20th century in a primitive conservation attempt.

“Their techniques then leave a lot to be desired now,” Appell said. “They used a lot of really hard cement which are really hard to remove…It’s very hard to reverse.”

Preservation Virginia’s team is now in the middle of the tedious process of chiseling away the cement and mortar that lines the edges and bottom of the stone. Once the previous bonding is removed, Appell will be able to bond the pieces back together more accurately with a custom-mixed pigmented mortar. Appell said his mortar is softer and will be easier to remove in the future, if necessary.

“We’re always trying to do things that are possible to redo later,” Appell said.  “If someone comes back to this and there are issues in another hundred years we don’t want to make it so that it’s impossible to do something to this [tombstone] again… It’s going to be in theory reversible, which is an important tenet of historic preservation.”

As Appel and the archaeologists work on conserving the tombstone, Preservation Virginia’s curators are working to uncover the identity of the man who was buried beneath it. The impression of a knight is engraved in the stone, which offers the team their biggest clue.

“That kind of limits the pool of individuals in early Virginia who could be buried [there] — its limited to which knights died in Virginia in the first half of the 17th century,” said Hayden Bassett, Assistant Curator with Preservation Virginia.

The body beneath

By process of elimination, the two most likely candidates are colonial Governors Sir George Yeardley and Thomas West, The Lord de la Warre, Bassett said. The next step for the team was to study the family records of the two men.

“When you’re studying mortuary practices, when you’re studying monuments, you never want to go to the records of the person who died, you want to go to the records of their offspring, of their family members who are still living,” said Bassett. “They’re the people who are largely going to be dealing with the logistics of getting a massive stone over here.”

Bassett said after searching through the journals of both men’s extended families, he thinks Preservation Virginia may have found mentions of the stone by Yeardley’s step-grandson Adam Thorowgood II, whose mother married Yeardley’s youngest son, Francis.

Sir George Yeardley's crest, which would have been nailed onto his tombstone. It was removed at some point before the 20th century. (Courtesy Hayden Bassett/Preservation Virginia)
Sir George Yeardley’s crest, which would have been nailed onto his tombstone. It was removed at some point before the 20th century. (Courtesy Hayden Bassett/Preservation Virginia)

“What they mention is that they would like to have a black marble tomb with the crest of Sir George Yeardley and the same inscription as upon the broken tomb,” Bassett said.  “We believe that might reference this stone.”

If a crest were preserved on the stone the archaeologists would have no trouble determining the grave’s occupants. It is apparent that monumental brasses once adorned the stone, Bassett said, but those were removed at an undetermined point in time. It is unclear who removed the brasses, or why.

“Not having the monumental brasses is a real issue,” Hartley said, which has forced Preservation Virginia to find other evidence to identify the tombstone’s owner.  “I’m very optimistic one way or the other who it belonged to, because of how well intact the church has been. We have a real chance here to solve one of our Jamestown mysteries.”

Bassett said the outlines of the brass also offer evidence indicating the stone marked Yeardley’s final resting place. The silhouette of the knight’s helmet is in the style of the first quarter of the 17th century, as is the pedestal upon which the knight is standing.

Yeardley died during this time frame in 1627. He became governor in 1618, and his legacies include presiding over the English-speaking representative government in the New World, being among the first Virginians to own African slaves, setting the price of tobacco and fortifying the Jamestowne fort.

As conservation of his tombstone continues, Preservation Virginia is deciding with how to display the tombstone and interpret Yeardley’s legacy to the public.

“This guy is extremely important in that historic event,” Lavin said. “Tying him in to the story might be an appropriate thing to do. This is one very important piece in that story is this actual ledger stone, because you can use Yeardley to tie all of these important events together…You can definitely use this as an anchor point for all of those different stories.”

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.