Thursday, December 1, 2022

Jamestown Unearthed: Reconstructing a 17th-century church bell

A sound of the 17th century may soon ring out across the grounds of the James Fort.

Researchers at the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and the B.A. Sunderlin BellFoundry in Ruther Glen, Va. are reconstructing a bronze bell from the Jamestowne Colony’s church.

“We’ll be able to hear that bell again — an original sound of the 17th century, which is really cool,” said Merry Outlaw, curator with Jamestown Rediscovery. “There are lots of things we can touch, but to hear a sound our forbearers heard at Jamestown is rare and compelling.”

The Jamestown Rediscovery team has conserved a few fragments of the bell, Outlaw said. The biggest shard was uncovered during the 1906 construction of the sea wall that separates the fort from the James River. Three more pieces were discovered between 2003 and 2008, during the excavation of the Confederate Fort that once stood on the site.

Three of the bell fragments. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
Three of the bell fragments. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Mineral analysis of the fragments indicated all the pieces came from the same bell. Yet archaeologists were unsure of where the bell had been located or when it was used until they found another fragment near the fort’s west bulwark.

The fragment was found in a filled-in defensive ditch surrounding the bulwark. Archaeologists know the ditch was filled in 1610, which provided vital context.

“Because it was deposited in 1610, it had to be made before 1610, broken and thrown away before then,” Outlaw said.

That meant the team could place the bell in the James Fort’s timeline.

But it wasn’t until Benjamin Sunderlin, a campanologist — or bell expert — came along that the team had any hope of hearing how the bell had sounded.

“Lo and behold, this guy approaches us who is a campanologist,” Outlaw said. “We didn’t even know that term.”

The bell was completed in Sunderlin's foundry. (Courtesy Michael Lavin/Jamestown Rediscovery)
This bell, a replica of one from a Jamestown church in the early 17th seventeenth century, was cast in Benjamin Sunderlin’s foundry in Ruther Glen, Va. (Courtesy Michael Lavin/Jamestown Rediscovery)

Sunderlin studied the shards and extrapolated from there. Ultimately, he determined the bell was 15 inches high with a 15-inch diameter at the base.

At his foundry, he created molds and cast a new bell that corresponds to the outline of the original.

“We’re real excited to be able to reconstruct this bell and to hear and experience something the early settlers of James Fort and Jamestown got to experience,” Sunderlin said in a YouTube video produced by Jamestown Rediscovery staff.

(A link to the video is at the top of this page.)

Historical documents indicate the church bell may have played a central role in colonists’ lives, calling them to church service or marking other important occasions.

For example, the ship Sea Venture arrived in May 1610 to find a colony decimated by the Starving Time. The colony’s Secretary William Strachey wrote in a letter that the arrival was accompanied by the ringing of the bell to alert the emaciated survivors about the good news, according to Outlaw.

“We cast anchor before James Town, where we landed, and our much grieved governor, first visiting the church, caused the bell to be rung, at which all such as were abele to come forth of their houses repaired to the church …,” Strachey said in the letter.

For now, the bell remains at Sunderlin’s foundry, but there are plans to move it to Jamestown and reinstall it in the Memorial Church, where guests will be able to see and hear it, Outlaw said.

“It is just one of those very cool artifacts we were able to reconstruct just from the few fragments we have,” she added.

“We’ll hear the sound again.”

A team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia has been at work since 1994 uncovering Jamestown’s buried secrets.

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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