Friday, October 7, 2022

Jamestown Unearthed: Radar Technology Reveals Likely Sites of Past Buildings

Preservation Virginia Assistant Manager of Public and Educational Programs Jeff Aronowitz gives a tour to a group gathered at a dig site located outside the walls of James Fort as Staff Archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson works to excavate dirt. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Preservation Virginia Assistant Manager of Public and Educational Programs Jeff Aronowitz gives a tour to a group gathered at a dig site located outside the walls of James Fort as Staff Archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson works to excavate dirt. (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

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 recurring feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort.

The archaeologists spent much of last year’s digging season excavating what is believed to be the cellar of a building which once stood near the church. It’s only the second dig outside the fort’s walls, where dozens of buildings are believed to have been built as the colonists outgrew the fort’s confines.

Much work remains to be done at that site this year. But on the surrounding grounds are many more years of archaeology scattered across what is now an open field of low-cut grass and a couple of winding gravel paths used by Historic Jamestowne visitors. The archaeologists believed those grounds were the likely site for development beyond the walls.

They became more certain in 2013, after a University of Kentucky professor named Will Holmes took the Jamestown Rediscovery tour. While a tour guide was explaining the archaeologists’ work, he asked if the team had ever tried using a ground-penetrating radar to look through the dirt without having to disturb any soil.

The professor was referred to David Givens, the senior staff archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery. After the two began talking, Holmes offered to bring ground-penetrating radar equipment to Jamestown to help map out what is underground.

This map shows James Fort in purple. The squares with blue, green and red are the maps produced by the ground-penetrating radar. Dark blue means there is probably nothing but dirt at that spot, while green and red signify hard material likely from the James Fort days. (Photo courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery)
This map shows James Fort in purple. The squares with blue, green and red are the maps produced by the ground-penetrating radar. Dark blue means there is probably nothing but dirt at that spot, while green and red signify hard material that could be artifacts from James Fort, old roads or abandoned utilities. (Photo courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery)

Givens said the technology is similar to what boaters use to detect fish underwater. The radar is mounted on a wheeled device that looks like a lawn mower and is pushed across the ground, firing off high-frequency radio waves that pass through the dirt until they strike a hard object.

The radar produces a map of the ground underneath that looks much like the radar imagery meteorologists use on TV weather reports — blue represents normal soil and red shows hard items underground.

The equipment was deployed on grounds to the north and east of the fort and church for a week last November. It yielded a large map littered with bright red of the land the team thought once featured the dozens of buildings outside the fort’s walls.

“It showed us what we had known was there,” Givens said. “That gave us an idea of many areas with high potential.”

A few weeks ago, the team met to plan out the next few years of archaeology at Jamestown Island, with the maps produced by Holmes’ equipment informing their discussions. Once the current dig finishes, the archaeologists will begin working on the sites identified by the radar, including a spot about 200 feet north of the church where there is likely a well. A well is often a gold mine for archaeologists, as the colonists tended to discard items into it, resulting in a kind of time capsule.

The work provided the team enough information to plan digs for the next 10 years. Along with the spots to the north of the church, they are also planning to remove the floor in the church and conduct a dig. Givens said the radar detected anomalies beneath the church building, some of which are likely gravesites.

It also revealed the precise location of a road which once carried vehicles to a point near the Jamestowne Tercentennial Monument, where the Jamestown-Scotland Ferry once docked. Other discoveries include a road which once linked the Jamestown area with what is now Williamsburg and old electric and utility lines buried decades ago.

Givens said he hopes the team can use the technology again to help pinpoint future dig sites.

Related Coverage:

Related Articles

MORE FROM AUTHOR