Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Jamestown Unearthed: Conservator finds more mysteries through ‘unusual’ cemetery project

Jonathan Appell worked for several months over the 2018-2019 winter to conserve broken a mismatched grave markers in the cemetery outside Jamestown's Memorial Church. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Jonathan Appell worked for several months over the 2018-2019 winter to conserve broken a mismatched grave markers in the cemetery outside Jamestown’s Memorial Church. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

More than 100 years ago, the cemetery outside the Jamestown Memorial Church lay somewhat in ruins.

As time wore on, the gravestones — some large tablets bearing names dating back to the 1670s and 1680s — had broken into pieces and been worn by the weather. Archaeologists believe some grave markers may have been looted or stolen, or moved for unknown reasons.

Around the same time the 1907 Memorial Church was constructed, stone masons pieced the grave fragments back together using cement, mismatching some pieces in an effort to preserve what was left, said Jonathan Appell, a nationally-known tombstone conservator with Connecticut-based Atlas Preservation.

“They basically put together the pieces so they would not disappear,” Appell said.

Over the last winter, Appell once more dismantled the historic grave markers, working to reunite and rematch the fragments to resemble their original structures.

Appell has also worked with Jamestown archaeologists on other projects, including conserving and re-locating the Knight’s Tombstone in the Memorial Church.

As of this month, the giant stone puzzle is mostly complete, but the project wasn’t cut-and-dry — Appell calls it “very unusual, complicated and confusing.”

Much mystery surrounds the cemetery at Jamestown, Appell said.

“The bottom line is that there’s a tremendous amount missing,” Appell said Friday. “The question is where it went… Lots of things were apparently disappearing.”

Archaeologists say there are “hundreds” of burials known to be east and west of the Memorial Church, but Appell said there are only about 15 actual grave markers he has pieced together.

Left to right: Michael Lavin, David Givens and Jonathan Appell look over the Knight's Tombstone after it was wheeled into the Memorial Church Tuesday afternoon. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Left to right: Michael Lavin, David Givens and Jonathan Appell look over the Knight’s Tombstone after it was wheeled into the Memorial Church April 9, 2019. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Appell has worked on gravestones and monuments of all ages across the United States, but said he has never seen “anything in such a diminished condition and with so few original stones” as the cemetery at Jamestown.

“As an example, say maybe there were 100 puzzles,” Appell said. “And say, hypothetically, 1,000 puzzle pieces originally. But only 75 pieces were left. Many of those puzzles wouldn’t go together anymore.”

Part of Appell’s job included removing more modern markers that did not match the original cemetery, including one belonging to Sarah Harrison Blair, the wife of the founder of William & Mary.

An interesting find

In the cold weather of January, Appell made an interesting find.

Hidden beneath the ledger stone of one grave was a piece of a different grave belonging to a person by the name of “Ludwell.”

Under the top ledger stone, a “very readable” piece of Sarah Blair’s tomb was face-down, surrounded by a gravestone that did not belong to her.

“That was dated 1670, the date was right on that piece,” Appell said.

It’s unclear whether the existing grave markers are over the people they were originally created for, although it’s not unusual if they aren’t, Appell said.

Appell has previously worked in the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, where Paul Revere is buried. In that cemetery, grave markers have been moved around like “chessmen,” he said.

Another “interesting” but mysterious part of the cemetery involves broken pieces of gravestones and ledger stones.

Over time, Appell said archaeologists uncovered stones that were broken into many pieces. While ledger stones will break, they don’t often break into small pieces, which Appell said indicates the could have been broken on purpose.

The reason why the stones would be broken, however, is unclear to Appell.

Proper materials

While dismantling the pieces and matching them together correctly was already difficult, the masons in the early 1900s used Portland cement to fuse the pieces back together and fill in areas where the stone was missing.

Portland cement is a very hard, strong material that is often used on modern-day graves.

For a project such as the Jamestown cemetery, a material like that is “not appropriate,” Appell said.

Appell used a different mortar, natural hydrated lime.

As the cemetery took shape, Appell also worked on the brick wall around the cemetery, as well as the gate from the Colonial Dames of America.

Jamestown is also discussing future projects with Appell, such as conserving the John Smith statue that looks out over the James River.

“They found me because I’ve been doing this a long time,” Appell said. “It’s an honor to be the one that was chosen to do this work.”

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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