Monday, September 25, 2023

Jamestown Unearthed: Reliquary Raises Questions on Catholicism in the Colony

Senior Conservator Michael Lavin spent around 100 hours cleaning off and preserving the reliquary discovered at the chancel burial site. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)
Senior Conservator Michael Lavin spent around 100 hours cleaning off and preserving the reliquary discovered at the chancel burial site. (Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Project)

When archaeologists at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project discovered the bodies of four founding fathers of the settlement buried beneath the chancel area of the original James Fort church, they also unearthed a small silver box that is now changing the way they think about religion in the early days of the colony.

The study and conservation of the silver box was a 16-month long process that the Jamestown Rediscovery team is now opening up about in advance of the upcoming release of a book all about the chancel burials.

Michael Lavin, a senior conservator at Historic Jamestowne, has taken the lead on cleaning up and preserving the box. He was also the first member of the team to recognize the box for what it was: a reliquary, or a special container that holds holy objects.

The reliquary was found in the grave of Capt. Gabriel Archer, who arrived to Jamestown on the original 1607 voyage, developed a rivalry with Capt. John Smith and was involved in several plots to “get rid” of Smith. Up until the discovery of the founders’ graves, researchers believed the majority of colonists — and all of the leadership — were Anglicans, not Catholics.

“When we saw it in the ground, we didn’t even know what it was,” Lavin said. “[A member of our team] picked it up and heard something [rattle] inside, but it could have been anything – maybe a small coin box.”

A preliminary X-ray confirmed there were two dense objects in the box, but a higher resolution X-ray was needed to identify what they were.

Jamestown Rediscovery turned to Colonial Williamsburg, which offered the use of their higher resolution X-ray, to come up with a more detailed scan. The resulting images confirmed there were two objects much denser than the box’s silver-copper alloy resting inside it, and also hinted at a third object of a drastically different density than either the box or the two denser artifacts within.

Once he had a preliminary idea of what he was handling, Lavin was tasked with the grueling process of cleaning off and preserving the box.

“It’s very careful cleaning under an X-ray using a scalpel,” Lavin said. “It takes an extremely long time. I spent about 100 hours on the box.”

As he cleaned, Lavin was asked to determine whether the box could be opened without doing damage to the box itself or its contents.

“Before I did the majority of the cleaning, I thought maybe we could get it open,” Lavin said.

The more he cleaned off the box and learned about its opening mechanism – a sliding lid – the more Lavin came to realize the risk was too great and it could not be safely opened. He conferred with other conservators, all of whom agreed with his assessment.

“So then the question became, how do you find out what’s inside when you can’t see inside?” Lavin said.

Fortunately, the team had some recourse thanks to advances in X-ray technology that allowed them rotate the box between two X-ray power sources, taking hundreds of thousands of “slices,” Lavin said, of the object in order to reconstruct it in three dimensions.

The box was taken to several different companies – Micro Photonics in Pennsylvania, Xradia at Cornell University and finally General Electric headquarters – and at each stop it was subjected to more powerful X-rays capable of producing ever-higher resolution images.

This series of X-rays confirmed what Lavin had suspected ever since he saw the two dense objects on the first X-ray – the box contained pieces of a lead ampulla, which is a small bottle used to hold blood, oil or holy water and often associated with a saint.

The presence of the ampulla indicated the box was in fact a reliquary, a finding further confirmed by the identification of the other objects in the box as seven human bone fragments.

“We were very surprised to see those there,” Lavin said. “It’s very difficult to pick up on [the bones and the lead] with the same equipment because they are so different in density.”

The real reliquary next to a plastic model, complete with models of the ampulla pieces and bone fragments, produced by Micro Photonics. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
The real reliquary next to a plastic model, complete with models of the ampulla pieces and bone fragments, produced by Micro Photonics. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

A doctor was able to confirm from the images that these were human bones, and the team is hopeful they will be able to further pinpoint the specific bone they are fragments of in time for inclusion in the upcoming book.

With the contents of the box fully identified and re-created, attention was turned to what the significance of this finding might be. Since reliquaries are most commonly associated with Catholicism, the discovery of one among the leaders of a Protestant colony raised a lot of questions.

“[This finding] started the research on ‘Is there a private Catholic cell [at Jamestown]?’” Lavin said. “Do we need to rethink religion at Jamestown?”

The investigation into those questions is ongoing and has called into question other artifacts in Historic Jamestowne’s collection.

“It’s forced us to also re-examine all other Catholic items found here, crucifixes, rosary beads,” Lavin said. “That’s the great thing about archaeology. You find something that is a clue that can make you change your mind about a bunch of other things.”

Bill Kelso, Jamestown Rediscovery’s director of archaeology, echoed this sentiment, saying the discovery of the reliquary may lead the researchers at Historic Jamestowne down previously unexplored avenues.

“Until now we’ve interpreted [Catholic objects] as trade items or as coming from a visiting Catholic presence, but then we find this,” Kelso said. “To me, it made me question the degree of the Catholic Spanish influence here.”

These questions and others will be explored not only in the book on the chancel burial but also in a revamped exhibit on religion at Historic Jamestowne, both of which are being produced entirely in-house and are slated for release sometime before the end of this summer.

For Lavin, being such an integral part of the team tasked with analyzing the burial site and its artifacts has been a humbling experience.

“It’s been really nerve-racking,” Lavin said, laughing. “Objects associated with burials have an extra meaning, and we as an organization never want to be disrespectful but we want to learn as much a possible. I think we’ve done that with this finding.”


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.

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