Sunday, December 4, 2022

Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists study arrival of first Africans in English New World

A drone shot of the Angela site. (Courtesy Preservation Virginia)
A drone shot of the Angela site. (Courtesy photo/Preservation Virginia)

As they prepare for the 2019 Commemoration, Jamestown Rediscovery’s archaeologists and the National Parks Service are teaming up to resume another season of work digging into the foundation of America.

The commemoration acknowledges the 400th anniversary of four seminal moments in American history, all of which took place at Jamestown Island in 1619.

One of those moments was the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the English New World — a moment which still impacts America to this day.

Only one of the first Africans taken to Jamestown had their name preserved in history: a young woman named Angela.

Angela was likely born in the Kingdom of Ngondo, and was captured by Portuguese traders then captured again by an English privateer.

When she arrived at Jamestown in August 1619, an ocean away from her home and surrounded by strangers, the James Fort may have seemed alien to Angela. Four hundred years later, James City might look just as unrecognizable to an untrained modern eye.

“She arrived into this English town, and the town has melted into the landscape,” Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Staff Archaeologist Dave Givens said. “Our goal is to go back and explore that landscape.”

In order to better understand the landscape in which Angela lived, Givens said the team will spend the year digging through a grass field that sits atop the buried remains of James City.

Archaeology on the Angela Site

Archaeologists have found artifacts like this at the Angela site. (Courtesy Preservtion Virginia)
A remnant of an early 17th-century Ottoman Empire Pipe that likely belonged to John Martin, the fist Iranian-American in the new world. This shard was discovered on the Angela Site. “Nothing like that had every been found in the new world,” Givens said. (Courtesy photo/Preservation Virginia)

The partnership between Preservation Virginia and the NPS is preparing to pick up where they left off in 2017, when they dug 18 test squares – 10-by-10 feet each – and began excavating the area around the home of William Pierce, Angela’s owner and a wealthy and prominent planter.

To date, Givens said they’ve discovered some artifacts from the site, which may or may not have belonged to Angela. They’re under lock and key for the time being, due to their sensitive nature.

Givens said the team is expanding their excavation in 2018, and will be searching through the soil for the colonist’s trash, food remains, and personal items lost to the sands of time. They are also studying the chemistry of the soil, hoping for clues as to how the people in the household lived.

They’ve had to pick through artifacts from the Civil War, American Revolution and even remnants from 20th Century archaeology digs, all of which have been buried on the same ground in the intervening years.

Their researchers will also use ground-penetrating radar to get a better idea of what lies beneath the soil.

‘What’s left out’

School children come to visit Historic Jamestowne and the Angela Site. (Courtesy Preservation Virginia.)
School children come to visit Historic Jamestowne and the Angela Site. (Courtesy photo/Preservation Virginia.)

While Angela’s story is four centuries in the making, it has never been told for one simple reason.

“History is written by those who could write, which happens to be a lot of rich white people, to be blunt,” Givens said. “What’s left out of those documents often is how people negotiate their daily lives in the town here, and what that town looked like.”

Givens said one of the aims of the project is to contextualize the environment in which Angela lived, and the role she and the other Africans served in the colony. What they uncover through their archaeology will help them design educational programming for the 2019 Commemoration.

“To see what her daily life was is just an exceptional and exciting opportunity that we have to inform the American public about the lives of these enslaved people that in the past have been neglected, let’s be honest,” said Steven Williams, acting deputy superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park.

Williams said community outreach efforts are being made, especially to the African American community in academia, business and places of worship. The conversations have dealt with how to effectively communicate Angela’s impact on the nation.

Historic interpreters from the National Parks Service also share Angela’s story with park guests on site daily.

“We take it and try to make it tangible and illustrative to the American Public,” Williams said.

The National Parks Service is providing funding for the project through the Civil Rights Grant Program.

Stewards of American history

The Angela Site. (Courtesy Preservation Virginia)
The Angela Site. (Courtesy photo/Preservation Virginia)

Another way the conversation is made accessible, Givens said, is through the archaeologists themselves, who are available to answer questions from guests as they work.

One of the main points Jamestown Rediscovery staff make is that while Angela arrived as a slave, her arrival on the island marks the beginning of racial diversity in what would become the U.S.

“One of the questions we struggle with is, when do we become American?” Givens said. “Different cultures arriving and weaving that colonial fabric that becomes entangled is part and parcel to understanding how we become American, and Angela and the first Africans were a part of that fabric. It’s just been overtly missing from our American history.”

Williams said one of the charges of the National Parks Service is to serve as stewards of American history – the good, the bad, and the ugly, as well as the forgotten.

American diversity got off to an ugly start, and some of its ugliest chapters are often forgotten, but to contextualize the national and ongoing conversation about race, Givens and Williams both said one must understand the events that transpired at Jamestown.

Slavery itself was first codified, or put into law, in James City.

“Certainly issues with race that started here at Jamestown are a national level [issue], and that’s something we’re all stakeholders in. That’s the legacy,” Givens said.

“Where we are today as a nation is traced back to this little island.”

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