Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Jamestown Unearthed: Recreating a sound heard 400 years ago

Black Creek Workshop crews construct the timber frame of a 1617 church within the walls of Jamestown's Memorial Church on Tuesday. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Black Creek Workshop crews construct the timber frame of a 1617 church within the walls of Jamestown’s Memorial Church on Tuesday. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Encapsulated within the brick walls of the Memorial Church along the James River, a second church — a thick timber frame — began to take shape.

Half a dozen men wearing neon harnesses and hard hats perched up in the new timber rafters Tuesday afternoon, battling the sweltering heat as the Virginia humidity gathered under the roof.

The newly-built timber frame, in the spirit of the 1619 Commemoration this summer, is a representation of the 1617 church where the first legislative assembly met to govern the New World.

And Tuesday, the 1617 timber frame received a key piece of most churches’ identities, regardless of denomination: a bell to hang in its belfry.

“Now we can recreate a sound heard at Jamestown 400 years ago,” said Michael Lavin, director of collections and conservation for Jamestown Rediscovery.

Several years in the making, the Jamestown bell project will come full circle Tuesday with the installation of a replica of a bell believed to date back to the first Jamestown church in 1608.

The replica will be inside the Memorial Church, but not inside its tower. Instead, it will be inside the 1617 timber church’s belfry, which is built inside the Memorial Church, and will ring using an remote-controlled electronic mechanism.

While only about a year old, the new bell is based off six fragments found by Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists during investigative digs, Lavin said.

The bell was molded and cast last year by campanologist Ben Sunderlin, a 32-year-old bell foundrer in Ashland.

Sunderlin said he reached out to Jamestown archaeologists after reading a newspaper story about the discovery of the historic bell fragments. Archaeologists were working to interpret whether they belonged to the same bell, and learn how it might have been used.

“They were trying to knit together this mystery of what this was… I said I might be able to help,” Sunderlin said. “So, I came and offered my learned opinion.”

RELATED STORY: Jamestown Unearthed: Reconstructing a 17th-century church bell

Sunderlin claims the title as the only traditional bellfoundry in the United States and North America — and also called himself a “bell geek.”

There is at least one company in the country similar to his, he said, but it uses a “more industrial” molding and casting process.

Much of his molding and casting are based on processes originally developed in the 1850s in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Some of his processes and knowledge, however, date back even further, to the Middle Ages.

Sunderlin studied under bell foundrers in the United Kingdom, France and Belgium.

Enter, the bell replica.

Sunderlin created the replica using some three-dimensional scanning, reconstructing it with “some license.”

The process, steeped in history, took a combination of several materials: sand, clay, horse dung — and human hair.

Hair is like fiberglass, in that it holds the bell mold together.

“I’m the weird guy that goes into a salon and asks for hair,” Sunderlin said with a laugh, adding that while he was training, he had two haircuts, buzzed or very long.

The replica is historically accurate, both in the metals it’s made of and its shape and construction.

The plans to put the bell in a belfry are a recent expansion of an original plan to interpret the walls of the 1617 church inside the Memorial Church for 1619 Commemoration programming.

RELATED STORY: Jamestown Unearthed: Man journeys from England to Jamestown to bring Gov. Yeardley back to life

The belfry was not originally expected to be a part of the exhibit, Lavin said.

“It gives the visitor an idea of the scale,” he added.

Daniel and Company contractors built the flooring in the Memorial Church for the 1619 Commemoration, which Black Creek Workshop constructed the timber frame for the 1617 church, where the new bell will hang.

The timber frame is built based off Langley Chapel in Shropshire, England, which was built in 1601.

The coexistence of the Memorial Church and 1617 church frame may carry another special significance.

Research indicates two of Jamestown’s churches may have coexisted on the same site at the same time as one was being built, although the extent of their coexistence is not yet known, Lavin said.

In modern day, Lavin estimates the exhibit work inside the church will be finished within a week, ahead of the 1619 Commemoration events kicking off July 30.

One of the items to cross off the list is Tuesday’s installation of the replica bell.

For Sunderlin, it’s an honor to lend his hand and skills to recreate a crucial piece of American history.

“I really love this project because I’m equally as geeky about history as everyone else here,” Sunderlin said from a bench outside the Memorial Church. “I’m very honored to have been involved in this piece of history.”

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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