Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists think they’ve found remains of one of Virginia’s early governors

Sir George Yeardley, died in 1627, was governor of Virginia three times and established the first English legislative assembly in the New World

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Archaeologists Mary Anna Hartley (left) and Bob Chartrand excavating the bones they believe belong to Governor George Yeardley. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation)
Archaeologists Mary Anna Hartley (left) and Bob Chartrand excavating the bones they believe belong to Gov. George Yeardley. (WYDaily/ Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation)

Five historic churches have stood in the space of Jamestown Island currently occupied by the Memorial Church.

Inside, guests visiting Historic Jamestowne this week will see a new structure inside the church: a wall-to-wall tent that covers the far end of the building.

The tent was set up Saturday with the purpose of shielding a recently uncovered 17th-century grave from modern contaminants. This is no ordinary burial, and the archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation are taking every precaution when handling the remains.

“I think he’s probably a leader in the colony and someone has taken great care to place him in a really oversized burial shaft in a really pristine location of the 1617 church,” Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologist Mary Anna Hartley said. “The most likely candidate right now is Sir George Yeardley.”

Born in 1587, Yeardley was governor of Virginia three different times and oversaw the first English legislative assembly in the New World in 1619. Yeardley died in 1627.

Historic Jamestowne archaeologists discovered the burial in April underneath the floor of the church, Hartley said.

Upon closer inspection, the grave shaft didn’t match other graves they’re uncovered on the site of the first permanent English colony in North America.

“There was some confusion to begin with because it was so wide we thought it might’ve been two graves,” Hartley said. “We began to think, why does it have to be so wide?”

The grave shaft was more than 3 feet wide — a foot wider than any other graves they had found in the chancel.

The tent was set up to keep enclose the burial area and prevent contamination. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)
The tent was set up to keep enclose the burial area and prevent contamination. (WYDaily/ Andrew Harris)

Additionally, the deceased was laid in such a way that if he had somehow sat up, he would have faced West. Anglican tradition at the time was for those of modest upbringing to be situated so they would face east.

Colonists buried their dead underneath the church floor, and their location within the church can be an indication to the status of the deceased. Yeardley was buried near the front and center of the 1617 church near the church’s chancel, or holy area.

“The closer you are to the chancel, the closer you are to God, essentially,” said Kaitlyn Fitzgerald, an archaeologist with Jamestown Rediscovery. “You have to really be a prominent member of the society or in the clergy to be buried in the chancel of the church.”

The remains themselves also indicate the man was in his 40s — the age at which Yeardley died.

While situational evidence would indicate archaeologists have likely excavated Yeardley’s remains, they are holding off on declaring that they definitely have Virginia’s first governor.

“We think this is the [one of the] first governors of Virginia,” said David Givens, director of archaeology for Jamestown Rediscovery. “So we’re going to spend the next six or seven months trying to prove ourselves wrong.”

They will try to prove themselves wrong by working alongside the Skeletal Biology Program team at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of History. The team will conduct DNA analysis to see if the remains are a match to Yeardley.

The tent itself was set up to prevent the mixture of modern DNA with the the DNA of the dead. Even the archaeologists allowed inside are required to wear full-body suits to prevent contact with the remains.

It may be too early to say for certain whether the remains are Yeardley, and archaeologists may not get answers for months. However, they said they can hardly contain their excitement.

“It would be a highlight of my career if while I was here this team at Jamestown Rediscovery could work together to identify Sir George Yeardley, the governor who presides over the General Assembly, the longest continuous lawmaking body in the western hemisphere,” Hartley said.

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 regular feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort. Click here to read past articles.

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