As archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery continue to dig into the Historic Jamestowne church that has stood at the site of the James Fort since 1906, they’ve uncovered something they weren’t expecting.
An abandoned cellar lies underneath the holiest place in the church, and it may contain details about life within the first permanent English colony — but archaeologists will have to dig to the bottom of the cellar before they can get to the bottom of the mystery.
Two previous brick churches have stood where the Memorial Church now stands in Historic Jamestowne. Historical records show the second was built by colonists in the 1640s and was in use for more than a century. The first brick church was built in 1617, meaning the cellar and the structure above it must have been built prior to the church’s construction.
“This [cellar] we assume has to be pretty darn early, because it’s already been abandoned and back-filled prior to 1617,” Jamestown Rediscovery Senior Staff Archaeologist Danny Schmidt said. “It’s safe to say we have another James Fort-period building likely dating to 1608 that doesn’t last beyond 1617, and it was a surprise for us.”
Capt. John Smith wrote that the fort’s walls were expanded to encompass more territory in 1608. Smith never mentioned the cellar, but because it was built outside of the fort’s original walls, the team is assuming it was likely built during the expansion effort.
Now that they have an idea when the basement was in use, they can begin to determine what it was used for.
Digging through history
Jamestown Rediscovery’s archaeologists have been excavating the chancel, or sacred altar, of the church since spring 2017, and came across the cellar last fall. Most of the subsoil in Jamestown is orange clay, but as they dug they came across a patch that didn’t match the dirt around it — and was filled with relics from a bygone era.
“We would see a hard line or edge where it wasn’t subsoil but disturbed fill, very typical of cellars,” Schmidt said.
Questions immediately arose as to the cellar’s purpose.
Some cellars in the James Fort were used for metallurgy or blacksmithing. Another was used as a kitchen, and all were likely used for storage, Schmidt said.
One way to determine the cellar’s use is to study the artifacts found within it.
Preservation Virginia has recovered many items from the cellar that document colonial life, including scrap copper, a dagger hilt, oyster shells, gun parts, egg shells, glass beads, pipe fragments and small copper coin known as a Harington Farthing.
When basements were no longer needed, they are often filled in with the colony’s trash — a treasure trove of artifacts, but containing remnants from all over the colony.
“The trash layers we’re seeing just teaches us when that cellar was abandoned and filled in,” Schmidt said. “It’s not teaching us the function of the space while it was in use.”
One of the difficulties the archaeologists are facing is sorting through centuries of artifacts from all over the fort that have been scrambled into one layer of sediment.
“The cellar was disturbed during the construction of the church,” in 1906, Curator of Collections Merry Outlaw said. “Then, during the construction of the church, features belonging to the earlier structure were disturbed, and also subsequent burials cut into the cellar.”
Colonists had a habit of burying their dead under the church floor, further obscuring the cellar’s remnants.
Preservation Virginia’s current team is also not the first group to dig through the church site.
The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities excavated the church in the early 1900s and then put the dirt back. The APVA were the forerunners to the Preservation Virginia, which oversees Jamestown Rediscovery, and the APVA also left notes regarding their activities on site.
“One of the questions answered for us once we figured out we had a cellar was why [the APVA] were finding so many artifacts in the graves they were excavating,” Staff Archaeologist and Site Suervisor Mary Anna Hartley said. “What they were describing was like what we find in trash layers.”
The artifacts that Jamestown Rediscovery team are now digging up have gone on quite a journey since they were left in the cellar by the fort’s colonists.
“All these thing were getting churned up,” Outlaw said.
Making sense of their findings
The team will continue to dig through the summer, and Schmidt said that more clues might be buried at the bottom of the cellar. Any objects left on the basement floor before it was filled in by the colonists would likely be at the very bottom, potentially allowing the archaeologists to tell what exactly the cellar was used for.
“Sometimes we luck out,” Schmidt said. “We don’t know until we dig the cellar if we’ll learn more how this space was used.”
“It’s hard to say at this point.”
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 regular feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort. Click here to read past articles.