Monday, December 11, 2023

Jamestown Unearthed: Spring Brings Flood of Interest in Wells

The outline of where a well will soon be excavated inside the remains of a cellar just outside James Fort. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
The outline of where a well will soon be excavated inside the remains of a cellar just outside James Fort. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)

As spring comes to Historic Jamestowne and the archaeologists return to the field for the year, one unusual feature will be taking center stage at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project in the coming months: wells.

Because of their propensity to collect artifacts of interest, wells have long been thought of as veritable treasure troves in archaeology, said Senior Staff Archaeologist Mary Anna Richardson.

At Jamestown in particular, early colonists reference several wells constructed in and around the fort in their writings, so the discovery of a well represents the opportunity to see what has been written in the recorded history of the fort.

As progress continues on the excavation of a cellar just outside the perimeter of the original fort, archaeologists with Jamestown Rediscovery are preparing to work on the well found inside that structure in the next few months.

“The [excavation of the] well could be an all-hands-on-deck situation,” said Danny Schmidt, a senior staff archaeologist.

As with other wells found at the site, the Jamestown Rediscovery team anticipates this well may turn up a wealth of artifacts.

Schmidt speculated that interesting objects may have fallen into the structure during its years of use, though it is less likely than with previously excavated outdoor wells because this one was inside and protected from the elements.

The real point of interest is when the well was deemed no longer usable by the colonists, at which time they would have filled it up with trash, which offers insight into life in the New World.

Schmidt estimates they will have to dig 2 or 3 feet before they hit saturated filler or even standing water – a figure he has come up with thanks in part to the work of a College of William & Mary professor who has spent the past several years studying everything about the water and wells on Jamestown Island.

Greg Hancock is a professor of geology at the college and took an interest six years ago in testing out a few hypotheses he and other scientists had about the quality of the drinking water at Jamestown and the effect it may have had on the colonists’ health.

Mentions of wells and problems with drinking water are found frequently in surviving writings from the fort’s early days, such as a passage written in a report by William Strachey that describes how during the Starving Time winter sickness spread “by drinking of the brackish water of James Fort.”

“We had heard a lot about the early colony and why they did not fare very well,” Hancock said. “One thing that comes up a lot is issues with water, but no scientist had come out and thought about where their water was coming from.”

Hancock brought a group of undergraduates working on research projects out to the island to begin studying the water six years ago, and they determined much of the groundwater was flowing from the pitch and tar swamp.

This discovery raised several more questions for Hancock, and since that time he has continued bringing his classes and research students out to Jamestown to continue to monitor and gather information on the subject.

Hancock’s hydrology students stopped by several times last week to collect data from the 19 wells Hancock has positioned around the island with the help of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project team. Though some of the wells approximate the location of actual wells the archaeologists have discovered, others are positioned at strategic points around the site for data collection.

William & Mary geology students collect data from wells around Jamestowne. From left to right: Pamela Braff, Jacqueline Huettenmoser and Vincent Cunningham.
William & Mary geology students collect data from wells around Jamestowne. From left to right: Pamela Braff, Jacqueline Huettenmoser and Vincent Cunningham.

Each of the 19 locations is marked by a simple PVC pipe sticking out of the ground from which the students can collect water samples without disturbing the soil around it.

The students study everything from how much distance there is from the surface to the water table to the rate at which running water is absorbed into the ground, and all of the results are recorded and compiled from year to year.

Since beginning his studies, Hancock has wondered whether salt, arsenic and human waste were responsible for contaminating the drinking water at James Fort.

Hancock’s findings have helped illuminate the role of each. A measure of the arsenic levels found they were slightly above what is considered safe to drink ,but not so much so that Hancock thinks this was a major factor in making the colonists sick or weak.

The source of the arsenic found in the Jamestown groundwater is a certain sediment in the swamp from which the water is flowing, but Hancock cautions that a person would have to drink a huge amount of water daily for the level of arsenic present to pose a serious health risk.

A more dire problem for the colonists was the effect of the tides on salt levels in the drinking water, Hancock said.

His research has found a significant relationship between the fluctuations of the tidal swamp and the saltiness of the well water. The drinking water becomes significantly saltier during dry times – a fact that did not bode well for the colonists.

“They actually arrived in the first year of the worst seven-year drought in the last 700 years,” Hancock said.

This poor timing on the colonists’ part made the river water too salty to drink in many seasons – a problem they likely did not anticipate when they first landed.

“When the colonists arrived they thought, ‘Great, there’s water here!’” Hancock said. “But they quickly had to switch [from drinking river water] to wells.”

Though wells provided fresher water for drinking, they only lasted for a short time before salt water would seep in and force the colonists to abandon old wells and start new ones. Colonist Thomas Dale wrote in a letter the men were consumed with labor for the creations of “a new well for the amending of the most unwholesome waters which the old afforded.”

The presence of sediments containing arsenic and the beginning of a period of drought were natural occurrences beyond the colonists’ control, but Hancock believes when it came to water-borne illness the settlers were actually their own worst enemies.

“What I think may be the most important problem was that they were confined to the fort or relatively close by, so where did they put all their waste?” Hancock said. “They didn’t know about germs back then.”

Hancock can measure water contamination from goose and other animal wastes as a stand-in for the human waste that would have posed a threat during the early years at the fort, and his findings suggest this was perhaps the most likely reason the water may have been making the settlers sick.

While his research has illuminated some of these historical questions, Hancock is also excited about its implications for the future. By studying the water during times of varied weather conditions over the course of several years, Hancock hopes his students can collect data that is valuable to researchers concerned about the effect of sea level-rise on the precariously exposed site of the fort.

“[This project] is great because it combines history and the future,” Hancock said. “And it’s so valuable to the students. They can participate in an actual research project as opposed to a canned lab project.”


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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