Thursday, September 28, 2023

Jamestown Unearthed: Well excavation answers some questions, raises others

In May the archaeologists at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project made their first foray into the well within the cellar they have been excavating for the past year and a half – a long-awaited project they hope will answer questions about this somewhat unusual structure.

As recently as this spring archaeologists were looking forward to uncovering the wealth of objects discarded during the fill-up of this particular well, but once they began excavation last week they found something quite different.

Excavation began last week on a well within a cellar. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Excavation began last week on a well within a cellar. Pictured here, field archaeologist Kelsey Watson is working through the top layers of clay. (Staff photos by Elizabeth Hornsby)

Rather than filling in the spoiled well with trash, as has been the case with most other wells discovered in and around the fort, it appears the colonists capped this particular well with clay almost to the bottom of the eight-foot-deep structure.

“It appears to be a very calculated attempt to cap the well,” said Mary Anna Richardson, a senior staff archaeologist.

Unearthing a well

Work on excavating the cellar, which is located just outside the perimeter of the original James Fort, began in October 2014. Originally identified as a pit, the presence of postholes – distinctive stains in the dirt that indicate a wooden post rotted in place there – and sharp right angles helped the team identify the structure as a cellar.

Work continued on the cellar for the next several months. As the team moved into the western chamber they discovered the well, which was an immediate point of curiosity for the archaeologists because of the likelihood it would continue well-preserved artifacts.

“Wells are the closest we get to time travel,” said Danny Schmidt, a senior staff archaeologist.

Wells are of particular interest to archaeologists for two reasons: their propensity to collect fallen or discarded objects and their ability to preserve them. The anaerobic conditions within a filled well prevent bacteria from living within them. And without bacteria, artifacts do not decay.

Because of the fort’s proximity to the brackish waters of the James River and the nearby tidal swamp, wells tend to last no more than a year or two before becoming too salty to drink from. Once they were no longer functional as water supplies, colonists often filled them in with trash, which translates to a wealth of artifacts for archaeologists today.

Contemplating the clay cap

As for why the settlers capped the well with clay rather than filling it in with trash, the team has several theories.

“I think it’s most probable [the clay] is from expanding the cellar,” Richardson said.

This theory aligns with the somewhat unique status of this cellar as one of the only such structures not to be filled in with refuse during the cleanup of the Fort following the winter of 1609-1610, commonly known as the Starving Time.

Senior Staff Archeologist Danny Schmidt takes water level measurements in the nearby swamp to determine when the team will hit water in the well. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
Senior Staff Archaeologist Danny Schmidt takes water level measurements in the nearby swamp to determine when the team will hit water in the well.

Since the cellar remained in use, and was even expanded following that winter, Richardson thinks it makes sense that colonists needed somewhere to put the clay they dug out during the expansion. If the well already was spoiled – the team agrees the well went out of usage before the cellar did – the most convenient place to put it would have been into the well.

Unlike the similarly structured outdoor well within the boundaries of the fort, Richardson notes, this well was inside and down a flight of stairs, making it more difficult to access by colonists disposing of trash.

These are the kinds of theories that are not obvious upon first consideration, but make a great deal of sense once devised, Schmidt said.

“When you spend that much time somewhere, you get a sense for the space,” he said of realizing the logistical considerations at play in filling in the well.

“Most of our staff has spent more time in the fort than any of the colonists did,” Richardson added.

So while it may have been initially disappointing to realize the well was filled in with clay rather than artifacts, that discovery has given the team more insight into minds of the colonists.

“An absence of artifacts is actually a key part of the story,” Schmidt said.

One more chance for artifacts

Despite the several feet of clay filling, the team anticipates that the well won’t be completely devoid of artifacts by the time they reach the bottom. Though the colonists may not have deliberately filled it in with trash, items still would have been dropped into the well during its lifetime. And as with other wells, those objects are likely to be well preserved.

“The bottom layer of material from the well’s life will hopefully provide clues as to how the [cellar] space was used,” Schmidt said.

Some of those clues may be turning up already.

Before getting to the clay cap, the team had to work through a top level of dirt they call the “occupation layer,” which is composed of things deposited on the floor during the use of the cellar rather items that may have been tossed in after the structure had been abandoned. This layer ultimately settled and was pulled into the top level of the well over time, Schmidt says.

A piece of a Dutch apothecary jar discovered in the occupation layer of the well. (Elizabeth Hornsby/WYDaily)
A piece of a Dutch apothecary jar discovered in the occupation layer of the well.

Among the items that turned up in the well’s occupation layer is a fragment of a common type of Dutch pottery, often used as an apothecary jar. Though its presence in the cellar is interesting, these jars were common enough in the colony that it doesn’t necessarily point to a particular use for the cellar.

As they move forward, the archaeologists will continue to rely on their sense of the space and the artifacts they turn up to piece together what they can of the story of this structure.

“Every one of these [digs] is a little different,” Richardson said. “[Structures] get harder to figure out if they have multiple phases of use.”


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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