Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Jamestown Discovery: Graves of Four Founders Unearthed

Archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project work at a site where the bodies of four of the founders of English America were discovered. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)
Archaeologists from the Jamestown Rediscovery Project work at a site where the bodies of four of the founders of English America were discovered. Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)

Archaeologists working to excavate the earliest European settlement on Jamestown Island have discovered the graves of four of the men believed to have founded English America.

The graves were discovered beneath what was the chancel — an area usually reserved for clergy — of the first church on the island, which stood from 1608 to 1616.

“These are four of the earliest English founders of America, and that is quite remarkable in my view,” said James Horn, a career academic who is in charge of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. “These are all key players in the first years.”

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The Graves

Click the links below to learn more about each founder discovered in the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project:


Jamestown Rediscovery worked closely with the Smithsonian Natural History Museum to ascertain who was buried in the chancel. The announcement was made July 28 at the Washington, D.C. museum.

Jamestown Podcast: An Interview with Dr. Bill Kelso and James Horn

Archaeologists have been at work on the island since 1994, making waves when they discovered the original James Fort had not been lost to erosion and the earliest settlers likely resorted to cannibalism in at least one instance.

The new discovery is the latest in a tradition of major discoveries by the project. Horn is confident the graves are those of the first Anglican minister on the island, two prominent gentlemen involved in early military action and another gentleman central to the early political machinations of the colony.

The bodies were discovered in 2013 arranged in a line from north to south. Since the discovery, the project’s researchers have combed over archaeological, forensic and documentary evidence to determine the identities of the four men.

VIDEO: Jamestown Chronicles Discovery of Founders’ Gravesites

The team found two people from the original 1607 voyage, including Capt. Gabriel Archer. He was present at the founding, developed a rivalry with Capt. John Smith and was involved in several plots to “get rid” of Smith.

“He was in many respects Smith’s nemesis,” Horn said. “Archer is prominent because he’s always at the center of the politics and the factionalism that’s a feature of the first few years.”

Archer was a Cambridge-educated gentleman who died during the starving time of 1609 and 1610. Discovered in his grave is a small silver box roughly 2.5 inches long and 1 inch wide, which has perplexed the researchers.

The reliquary as it appears following cleanup. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery)
The reliquary as it appears following cleanup. Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)

That’s because it is likely a reliquary, which is a small container that holds holy relics. They are typically associated with the Catholic Church, and while there were a handful of Catholics in the early colony, the majority of colonists — and all of the leadership — are believed to be Anglicans.

The researchers knew there was something inside the reliquary, but the silver was too corroded to allow it to be opened without destroying the artifact. They approached the FBI, which recommended two companies with powerful scanning technology — General Electric and Micro Photonics.

Thanks to those companies’ advanced scanning equipment, the team was able to see six bones — likely human, though possibly animal — along with two pieces of lead that were likely a small container known as an ampular. Those containers were used to hold holy water, oil or even blood.

Horn said there is no indication Archer was a Catholic, leading the team to two working theories: Archer was a secret Catholic or the reliquary is actually Anglican. The Anglican Church did have some reliquaries, though they were quite rare compared to the Catholic Church.

A reliquary expert suggested to the team the one they found is not a private reliquary. It appears more likely to have been used in public ceremonies.

“It may be that ultimately we’re never going to know for sure whether it’s a personal Catholic item or the spiritual sacred expression of the 1608 [Anglican] church,” he said.

Farthest north — and first to be buried — is believed to be that of the Rev. Robert Hunt. He was among the 104 men and boys on the initial 1607 voyage, serving as their leading ecclesiastical figure.

“He is well-esteemed by the settlers,” Horn said. “He was described as a pious and humble man.”

The forensic evidence shows Hunt was wrapped in cloth and buried with his head pointing to the east, which is the typical orientation of the body of a clergyman buried at the time. He died in the winter or early spring of 1608, though there is no indication of what killed him.

Hunt was integral to religious life in the colony’s first days. He founded the first church at James Fort, making him the founder of the first church in English America. That church was more than 60 feet long and 20 feet wide and occupied a prominent spot in James Fort, which Hunt said speaks to the importance of the church to the colony.

“There is a very important story about the intent of the Virginia Company to translate the [Anglican Church] to the New World, and the Reverend Robert Hunt is very much a part of that,” Horn said.

Next to Hunt is believed to be Sir Ferdinando Wainman, a knight who arrived in June 1610 along with Lord De la Warr and about 150 other settlers. That contingent joined the colony after three brutal years that pushed James Fort to the brink. De la Warr soon became the leader of the colony.

The bodies were found at the site of the first church to be established on Jamestown Island. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)
The bodies were found at the site of the first church to be established on Jamestown Island. Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation (Preservation Virginia)

“[The original settlers] had decided to abandon the fort and were sailing down the James River when they were met with De la Warr’s advance party,” Horn said. “Wainman is with that group.”

There were only a couple of knights in early English America. Wainman was educated, affluent and an experienced soldier who oversaw artillery and cavalry. He also served on the early council led by De la Warr that governed the colony.

The team determined Wainman was buried in the remains of a wooden anthropoid coffin, meaning the coffin was cut to look like a human body, like a sarcophagus.

“He is described as an honest and valiant gentleman whose death was much lamented,” Horn said. The cause of death is unknown.

The final grave belonged to Capt. William West, a nephew of De la Warr who arrived on the same fleet as Wainman. He was also buried in an anthropoid coffin, and his body had a silver sash that would have been worn by a military officer.

Historical records indicate West died in 1610 during a skirmish with Powhatan and Pamunkey warriors at the site of present-day Richmond.

“That was some of the toughest fighting that was going on during 1610,” he said.

West was brought back to Jamestown to be buried. He was in his mid-20s when he died.

The quartet represent what Horn and the team believe is a fascinating look at the first days of colonial life in English America. It has taken more than 20 months for the team to become confident of the identities of the four men, as the graves are badly decomposed after more than 400 years underground.

Learn more about the team’s scientific process in the video from Jamestown Rediscovery:

WYDaily publishes a monthly article detailing the Jamestown Rediscovery team.

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