Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Jamestown Revisted

It's only midmorning on a cold April day, and already the parking lot at Historic Jamestowne is so crowded that newcomers must park their cars on the grass. As the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English colony in America approaches, "America's birthplace" has become a hot destination. Even more visitors will wind up at nearby Jamestown Settlement, where they can see replicas of the three ships that brought the first colonists over in 1607, a Powhatan Indian village, and a somewhat dated re-creation of James Fort. Some will never know that they haven't seen the actual Jamestown but a museum instead; the settlement is an attraction built by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, an agency of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A mile away, however, William M. Kelso, head archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery project, has spent the last 13 years excavating the real thing: James Fort, the triangular, palisaded structure the 1607 colonists threw up in 19 days to protect themselves from Indian attack. It had long been assumed that the river, over four centuries, had swallowed up most of the original Jamestown colony. With careful scholarship and spadework, Mr. Kelso has proved them wrong.

What Mr. Kelso and his team have found is rewriting the history that began with the 104 men and boys who landed on this swampy bit of land on May 14, 1607. Historians have dismissed the colonists as inept, lazy, feckless, or unprepared. But they hung on by the skin of their teeth, until the European consumer craze for tobacco threw them an economic lifeline. The new archaeological finds have begun to reveal how they weathered those first hard years and decades.

But the artifacts, the graves of settlers, and even the discarded oyster shells that have emerged have done more than begin to recast the narrative. Specialists in 17th-century material culture and environmental scientists who study the Chesapeake Bay have been reaping the benefits of Mr. Kelso's work. Their analyses, in turn, have provided new fodder for historians of the wider Atlantic world.

In a sense, despite what they have accomplished so far, Mr. Kelso and his team resemble the 1607 colonists in that they are a small private enterprise, uncertain if they can sustain themselves long enough to finish what they have started.The James Fort site is part of 22 acres on Jamestown Island held by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a nonprofit group that acquired it from private landowners in the 1890s.

To date, only 40 percent of the site of the original fort has been excavated, and there is considerable anxiety about where the money will come from to finish the job. And the rest of the island, including areas into which the original colony expanded as it grew, belongs to the National Park Service and has no active digs at the moment. Who knows what lies there?

"There's a great confusion over what is Jamestown," says Beverly (Bly) Straube, curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery project. "Legislators think they've been to Jamestown when they've been to the place with the three ships. We've been struggling with that. We fall through the cracks, because we're not federal, we're not state."

Digging In

An energetic, white-haired man with a white slash of mustache, Mr. Kelso wears a khaki hat that makes him look like he is on safari. The story of how he and his team found the long-lost fort has been retold many times in the news media buildup to the quadricentennial. Mr. Kelso's own account, Jamestown: The Buried Truth (University of Virginia Press, 2006), has become a best seller for the publisher, with more than 30,000 copies sold to date.

The Virginia preservation association didn't fully know what it had acquired when it took over the property. Over the years, the group had explored the remains of a 17th-century church and put in a sea wall to hold back the river. In the 1950s, the Park Service dug a series of test holes and trenches. But all of that work was, from a modern investigator's perspective, frustratingly unsystematic.

By 1994, Mr. Kelso and his team had a better idea of what to look for, thanks to recent work on other sites throughout the Chesapeake region. "Time has really helped us," Ms. Straube says. "Since the first excavations were done out here, we've done a lot of archaeology up and down the James River on a lot of 17th-century sites, with the post-in-ground construction and fortified settlements, so we knew what a fortification would look like."

Mr. Kelso also dug into the contemporary accounts of John Smith, William Strachey, and other colonists. Then he dug into the ground. He began with the assumption that the extant church lay within the fort, and that if he started between the church and the river, he would intersect the wall line of the fort itself.

"I didn't hit the wall, but it was pretty close," he says. "We started finding artifacts that were old enough, military things, so it was pretty clear we were close."

Since then, as many as a million artifacts have been unearthed and some 2,500 features identified, including wells (which tend to be rich repositories of artifacts), cellars, and grave sites. The outlines of the fort and buildings inside it have been identified and, in places, reconstructed post by post to test out the building techniques of the time.

The original well and the colonists' first church have yet to be discovered. And although every cut and find the archaeologists make is recorded with what Mr. Kelso describes as "one of the most sophisticated digital-recording systems being used in archaeology today," it takes valuable staff hours to process it all, hours that could be spent with trowel in hand.

It will take years to dig up all that remains to be found. As the settlement expanded and made the transition from a company venture to a royal colony, people and buildings took up more and more of the island. "I'm particularly interested in the evolution of government and in the various buildings where it met," Mr. Kelso says. "It moved around. There were other forts through the 17th century that have not been pinpointed," along with settlements outside the original fort's walls and on Park Service land.

"There are a lot of research questions that have not been answered," Mr. Kelso says. Then there's the backlog of data already collected but not yet put in a form that is easy to use.

"We've been working at doing technical reports," he says. "Now we need to write the monographs."

Material World

A small complex of buildings houses the research center, a two-minute walk from the excavation site. This is the domain of Ms. Straube and a small curatorial staff, where artifacts of every description await preservation and interpretation, including weapons, gussets, and other armor components, and German Bartmann ("bearded man") jugs, named for the face that adorns them.

There are mounds of copper and glass beads, used for trade with the Indians. The center also possesses heaps of faunal remains, including sturgeon bones, oyster shells, and the bones of turtles, which the staff calls "box lunches," because the settlers would cook and eat the reptiles in the shell.

Researchers across disciplines have found in this material record a treasure trove of information about 17th-century trade and manufacture, artisanal practices, military and domestic life, and relations with the Indians. This year Ms. Straube has had visits from at least 15 English and American scholars who specialize in arms and armor, ceramics, glassware, and tobacco pipes. And she has corresponded with at least as many on "very eclectic topics" such as sturgeon and tobacco seeds. "I even provided Portuguese archaeologists information on ear pickers!" — the 17th-century equivalent of Q-tips.

Two things make Jamestown a rich resource from the perspective of material culture: its precise dates and its dense accumulation of artifacts. "The great beauty of Jamestown is that it's so chronologically focused," explains Geoff Egan, a finds specialist at the Museum of London. "Particularly the starting date is extraordinarily useful to us. And the concentration of activity." In a city like London, with its many and diffuse activities and longer timeline, he says, "we simply wouldn't get the same amount of material" in one place.

Mr. Egan, a specialist in glassware and other nonceramic artifacts, paid his first visit to Jamestown in 1994 and immediately identified a connection between the work there and his own: "I found a whole series of bits of glass from broken windows, and that was exactly what I had on my desk in London." For glassmaking, "you need a sort of starter batch," he explains. He concluded that the Jamestown fragments constituted such a batch. That kind of evidence demonstrates that the colonists "went as well equipped as they could be" for a number of different activities and crafts.

"It is a huge range of material," he says. "The sheer scope of it is mind-boggling, and completely on a different scale than what we're used to."

Those materials have expanded horizons in the burgeoning field of Atlantic studies and pushed historians to reconsider what they know about the colony's place in the larger Atlantic world.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a professor of history at New York University, is the author of The Jamestown Project (Harvard University Press, 2007), one of the most wide-ranging and widely reviewed scholarly entries in the bumper crop of Jamestown books published in time for the anniversary. "One of the things that has been very interesting," she says of the excavations, "is the kinds of goods from all over the world that have turned up, even in the very earliest context, at Jamestown."

She mentions, for instance, a Chinese ceramic cup. "I consider myself an Atlantic historian, and the idea that Jamestown was part of an Atlantic, possibly even global, network of trade is really important," she says.

Although in her book she describes Jamestown as "the creation story from hell," she believes that it was where the English finally, after much painful trial and error, finally figured out how to make a colony work. "Jamestown changed the whole model," she says.

The archaeological evidence supports that notion in a way that written accounts of the colony do not. Ms. Kupperman sums it up this way: "We have this image of Jamestown as a kind of place where nobody could do anything right and people even had trouble going through the basic routines of life. This all comes out of the written record. What Kelso and his team are finding is lots of evidence of purposeful activity."

Historians, she believes, have also gotten better at incorporating such data into their scholarship. "I don't want to cast aspersions on previous generations," she says, "but I think there's much more of a feeling of partnership, partly because archaeologists are making sure that historians know about their finds. But it's also that projects such as this bring together archaeologists and historians in ways that we previously didn't interact."

Shell Game

Such interactions are not limited to history and archaeology. An environmental study of bald cypress trees from the region, published in 1998 in Science, concluded that the colonists arrived during the middle of a severe drought.

"The tree-ring study has just been transformative," Ms. Kupperman says. "Until they did it, we had no idea there had been such dramatic environmental conditions."

As it turns out, Mr. Kelso's team has been able to repay the favor by giving scientists what amount to ecological time capsules. Juliana M. Harding, a senior marine scientist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary, has been conducting an analysis of a cache of oyster shells found in a Jamestown well that dates to 1611.

"Being handed a couple thousand shells from 400 years ago that are in good shape," she says, "is like being handed a large pot of gold."

Modern oyster populations have been hit hard by disease and habitat degradation and fishing pressure — "all sorts of nasty things," Ms. Harding says. "But as far as having something to compare to — we wave our arms and talk about restoration, but we don't really know what a pristine oyster population in the Chesapeake would have looked like." So when the Jamestown Rediscovery team offered 400-year-old oysters, "it was a no-brainer."

Ms. Harding observes that, just as tree-growth rings mark changes in the environment over the tree's lifetime, oysters and other bivalves "carry a record of their entire lives in their shells." She calls them "environmental chronometers" that record patterns of water salinity, temperature, and nutrients. By analyzing those patterns, scientists can get a clearer picture of the 17th-century Chesapeake environment.

"In this part of the world, there are a lot of people interested in archaeology," she says, "and they have access to shells. Through the connections and the networking we've been able to do with Bill and his folks, it's opened up a lot of possibilities."

Survive and Learn

The archaeological and environmental record hardly makes Jamestown look like the land of easy living, but it does show that the settlers put some real effort into their venture. And it gives scholars a much keener sense of the challenges — a major drought, for instance — that shaped the colony's early history.

James P. Whittenburg, chairman of the history department at the College of William and Mary, says that "the standard line on early Jamestown, the company period from 1607 to 1624, is that it was a total disaster, that they barely hung on. I'm not saying that's wrong. I'm just saying that Bill doesn't see that in the ground."

Mr. Whittenburg is one of several authors of a forthcoming article, "Adaptation and Innovation: Archaeological and Architectural Perspectives on the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake," that will appear in The William and Mary Quarterly this summer. "By the middle of the century, they're starting to develop an entirely different sort of architecture that comes to be called the Virginia house," he says. "It shows a remarkable degree of ability to adapt to the New World environment. I think that's the message of the archaeology that's been done in the Chesapeake — the colonists' ability and willingness to adapt."

Scholars, he continues, "tend to see this process as a straight line forward and upward, but what really happened was there were a lot of false starts and falling back and a continual reinvigoration of Chesapeake society. They're constantly refreshing the tool kit."

Without the raw data, however, such creative collaborations won't get very far. The future of the Jamestown Rediscovery project, like that of the colony that found a tenuous foothold here four centuries ago, depends on more than hard labor. It also needs cash to keep digging.

The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities relies on grants and private donations. It gets no federal funds, though it splits the Historic Jamestowne entrance fee with the National Park Service. Members of the association's staff like to refer to Jamestown as the jewel in Virginia's crown. The bulk of the commonwealth's money, however, goes next door to Jamestown Settlement.

The excavation of James Fort continues, for now. As Mr. Whittenburg sums up the situation, "everything rides on money. Bill and Bly are terribly concerned about what will happen after 2007, and I share that concern."

He and members of the William and Mary administration have met with Mr. Kelso and Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director of the preservation group, to discuss "a more formal alliance" between the college and the work at Jamestown.

If the money's not plentiful in this year of all years, it is not likely to increase once the dignitaries and anniversary visitors go home and all the quadricentennial hoopla dies down. "Quite frankly, everybody's been under the pressure to get to 2007, to find what nobody thought could be found," observes Ms. Kostelny. "How do we fund the research of the future? It will have a different complexion than it does now."

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