In an answer to archaeologists’ prayers, excavations at the site of the first English church in what is now the United States have cast light on the lives and deaths of four key players at Virginia’s Jamestown colony more than 400 years ago.
Archaeologists discovered the site of the church, which was used from 1608 to 1617 and hosted Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe, as well as four burials in the church, in 2010. Excavations and investigations of the dead began in November 2013.
Each grave held a man who had been a leading figure of the Jamestown settlement, researchers announced at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., on July 28.
“These were individuals who were critical to the founding of English America,” said Smithsonian forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley. A team led by Owsley collaborated with archaeologist William Kelso and his colleagues at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation to identify the colonial bigwigs.
The researchers narrowed down the men’s identities by consulting historical and genealogical records, determining sex and approximate age of death via tooth analyses, and using chemical data from bones to reconstruct diet and reveal lead exposure from high-status objects such as pewter bowls. Other clues, such as coffin styles and artifacts placed with the dead, also helped to pin down who the men were.
In one grave lay Reverend Robert Hunt, Jamestown’s first Anglican minister. Hunt died in 1608 at around age 39. His body was situated so that his head faced east, a traditional burial orientation for clerics, said historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. Hunt’s body was probably placed in a simple coffin and covered by a shroud, the researchers suspect.
Another grave held Captain Gabriel Archer, who died in late 1609 or early 1610 at about age 34. Starvation, disease and Indian attacks devastated the Jamestown settlement at that time (SN: 6/1/13, p. 5). Archer was part of the first expedition to Jamestown that landed in 1607. He helped lead excursions to explore the region and was critical of John Smith’s leadership.
A small silver box rested atop a surviving piece of Archer’s coffin, indicating it had been intentionally placed there. Rather than breaking open the sealed box, the researchers used a CT scanner to inspect the box’s contents. The scans showed that the box contained seven bone fragments and two pieces of what the researchers suspect was a lead flask that held holy water. This type of religious object, known as a reliquary, is typically — but not always — associated with Catholicism.
Archer may have been a secret Catholic in an Anglican settlement, Horn suggests. Or the sacred object may have had meaning for Anglicans at that time, he adds. For now, that’s a mystery.
A third grave held Sir Ferdinando Wainman, who died in 1610 in his mid-30s. Wainman perished about a month after arriving in Jamestown with his first cousin and Virginia governor Sir Thomas West on a mission to save the colony from destruction and to shore up its military defenses. Wainman was the first English knight buried in America, genealogical records show. Coffin nails arrayed in Wainman’s grave indicate he was buried in a human-shaped coffin.
The final grave was that of Captain William West, who died at around age 24 following a military skirmish in 1610 with nearby Powhatan Indians. High-resolution CT scanning indicated that cloth fragments found near West’s remains had been part of a military leader’s silk sash with a silver fringe and spangles. Recovered coffin nails suggested West was also buried in a human-shaped coffin.
These four men’s standings as Jamestown power players are underscored by the presence of artifacts in their graves. Grave artifacts were reserved for the wealthy in English burials of that time, Kelso said. Also, the graves were placed in the church’s most sacred section, near the altar.
BACK IN TIME Starting with an overhead view of the Jamestown archaeological site, this video zooms viewers into the church where four leaders of the colonial settlement were buried. The scene zeroes in on Captain Gabriel Archer’s burial and focuses on a silver box – possibly a sacred object for Catholics – that was placed on his coffin. Credit: Smithsonian Institution