Friday, April 19, 2024

Jamestown Unearthed: Archaeologists restore knight’s tombstone

Dan Gamble (left) and Jonathan Appell place clamps on the pieces of stone to hold them together. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

It’s a puzzle centuries in the making. Last week, archaeologists at Preservation Virginia joined together pieces of what may be the oldest tombstone in North America.

The Knight’s Tomb rested on the ground of Jamestown’s Memorial Church for more than 100 years before a team of archaeologists set their sights on restoring it. The legendary tombstone once marked the final resting place of a high-status 17th-century colonist, likely the Virginia Colony’s first governor, Sir George Yeardley.

“This particular ledger stone is completely unique,” said Jonathan Appell, founder of Atlas Preservation. “I have never seen anything like this in America, and that just adds to the intrigue and mystery of it.”

Appell applies an epoxy before joining two pieces of stone together. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Preservation Virginia contracted Appell to lead the conservation of the stone due to his experience working on historical monuments and hosting gravestone preservation workshops.

Currently the tombstone sits on a flatbed cart in the church, where archaeologists have been carefully piecing it back together.  The stone was shattered more than a century ago — although the archaeologists do not know when or why.

The pieces of broken stone were joined together using Portland cement in the first decade of the 20th century by archaeologists with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. The same group also constructed the Memorial Church, before placing the reconstructed stone on the floor near the southeast corner.

‘Putting a jigsaw puzzle together’

In order for Preservation Virginia to preserve the stone, the first step for present-day archaeologists was to undo the work of the 20th century archaeologists.

“They really did pretty good quality work for that era,” Appell said of the prior cement job.  “However, the materials they used created challenges for us to rework it later and do a more high-level workmanship.”

Two pieces of stone sit side-by-side before being clamped into place. Because of the damage, the pieces do not fit together perfectly. Appell will fill the gaps with mortar.
(Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Appell decided the cement on the stone had to be removed before archaeologists could rejoin the pieces using more modern techniques.

“In order to get these joints to fit together nicely we had to chisel it away, grind it away, remove it in different ways — mostly all by hand — to get the pieces to fit together again,” Appell said.  “I liken it to putting a jigsaw puzzle together, and if you had a whole bunch of dried oatmeal or some kind of debris mixed in the pieces don’t really fit together again.”

Archaeologists tediously removed concrete from the bottom, edges and cracks of each piece of stone.

“Removing all the Portland cement was very time consuming,” Senior Conservator Dan Gamble said.  “I wanted to make sure everything was as clean as possible. It was a lot of chipping to remove all that Portland cement…It took about a month or so to get it off.”

Once the cement was removed the team’s next task was to join the pieces together. Appell said one of the bigger challenges they faced was primitive quarrying techniques of the 17th century. While the top of the stone is smooth and flat, the bottom is jagged and has varying thicknesses.

“If it was a more modern slab or ledger stone it would be milled to much higher tolerances and the pieces would just kind of go together much more easily,” Appell said. “Having all these different heights creates a scenario where we constantly have to be putting shims in all different places. It makes it very irregular and challenging.”

Historic Jamestowne guests watch as the stone is reassembled. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)

Appell and the team fit the pieces together by laying them on the cart, pushing the edges together, placing shims underneath to set an even height, applying epoxy to adhere the pieces together, and then using clamps to hold the pieces in place while the epoxy dried.

“I’m really happy with the results here,” Appell said.  “I always strive for the highest level of perfection I can achieve.  Due to its age it’s not perfect but it’s really good solid repair and it will last indefinitely.”

On public display 

As with all of Preservation Virginia’s work in the Memorial Church, the repairs took place in front of Historic Jamestowne’s guests.

“They are very interested,” Gamble said of the guests. “They ask a lot of great questions. The interest level is very high, especially when we tell them the significance of the ledger stone.”

Once done pouring mortar to seal the stone together, the Preservation Virginia team will decide on how and where to best display the repaired tombstone for guests of Historic Jamestowne.

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 monthly feature in WYDaily exploring the latest discoveries in and around James Fort. Click here to read past articles.

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