Archaeologists discover Jamestown relics that may re-write U.S. history

science | Jul 29, 2015 | By Martin Barillas

The remains of four Englishmen who formed part of the elite of the first settlers to arrive in Virginia have been found and identified at historic Jamestown. Questions about the identity of one set of remains is said to be perhaps the basis of rewriting the history of colonial America. Four burials, which have been identified as belonging to a clergyman and three military men were found in the cemetery of the oldest Protestant Christian church in what is now the United States. The burials date to a period between 1608 to 1616. The site has been the scene of archaeological excavations for decades.

British archaeologist James Horn said of the find, “This is a major discovery, these four men are the oldest figures to be discovered in America." Horn is the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. "Lost to history for over 400 years, the discovery of these remains reveals new clues about the life, death and the importance of religion in one of the most important English colonies" in America, said Horn on July 28.  "The living conditions were harsh" in this first settlement, said Horn.  "Coming to the New World was risky for a European. Hunger, Indian attacks and disease killed the settlers and most of them did not live beyond 40," he added. "What we have discovered here in the earliest English church in America are four of the first leaders of America," said Horn. "There's nothing like it anywhere else in this country."

The four men, aged 24-39 years, have been identified by combining modern technology with research in British archives. Among those identified by the experts were the Reverend Robert Hunt, the first Anglican minister of the colony, and Captain Gabriel Archer, both of whom were part of the first colonizing expedition of 1607. It was commanded by Captain John Smith, who history records was rescued by Pocahontas – a native Indian woman whose legend was popularized by a Disney cartoon film.  Archer and Smith were rivals. The site is the same church where Pocahontas famously married Englishman John Rolfe. The resulting peace between the Powhatans and colonists at the first permanent English settlement in America. The historical Pocahontas eventually emigrated to England and died there in the mid-1600s.

Alongside Hunt and Archer were found the remains of Sir Ferdinando Wainman - the first English knight to be buried in colonial British America - and Captain William West, who was killed in a skirmish with the Powhatans. They were buried near the altar of the church.

Besides the human remains, certain artifacts the archaeologists uncovered are mystifying experts and historians. The Jamestown settlement is often thought of as an exclusively Protestant endeavour. The discovery of the reliquary may reveal a more nuanced history. Archaeologists had already found Catholic artifacts such as crucifixes and rosaries. However, these were explained away as anomalies.

Buried with the Archer’s mortal remains was a small silver box that contained bones and at least one lead ampule. Scientists have identified the box as a reliquary: a container used by pious Catholics for safeguarding the relics, such as bone fragments, of saints. The ampule may contain holy water. Archer's parents are believed to have been Catholic in Elizabethan Protestant England. Reliquaries and other trappings of Catholic worship were illegal at the time. Horn said that the disovery raises the question of whether Archer was perhaps part of a Catholic cabal or had been spying on behalf of the Spanish. While Catholic relics have been found in the Jamestown archaeological site before, the placement of the reliquary is especially poignant. Using CT scans to see inside the sealed box without damaging it, they gained a perspective that was impossible just one decade ago.

The Church of England had a strong role in the creation of an English America, said Horn, serving as a Anglican bulwark against Spain’s Catholic colonies to the south. Some experts hold that the reliquary may have been simply repurposed for the Anglican Church. Religious strife in the British Isles made for mixed loyalties for centuries. "It was a real kind of ah-ha moment for a lot of us," said William Kelso, who serves as Jamestown's director of archaeology. "It was oh, religion was a big deal here, and that's often overlooked. Everyone thinks that people came to Jamestown to find gold and go home and live happily ever after."

The veneration of holy relics was abjured by Protestants at the time, just as Catholics - especially Catholic priests - were subjected to persecution and death at the hands of English officials. Catholics who refused to bow to the official Anglican Church were known as recusants. Those Catholics who outwardly adhered to the Anglican Church but clung to the Catholic Church are now referred to as crypto-Catholics. The discovery of the reliquary within an Anglican place of worship has caused some experts to conclude that there may have been crypto-Catholics among the early settlers.

The relevant burials were first unearthed in November 2013. However, scientists sought to first trace and identify their findings before announcing the discovery. Experts have been looking at the site since 1994. At that time the original James Fort was rediscovered. It had long been thought to have submerged into the adjacent James River. Mostly untouched and unexcavated for more than a century, the church site was found in 2010.

The four men unearthed in Jamestown were pivotal figures in the history of British America. Archaeologists plan to conduct further excavations at the church site in the hope of finding the remains of Sir Thomas West, an early governor of Virginia who led a rescue mission to save Jamestown when the colony was collapsing, Horn said. West was known as Lord De La Warr and became the namesake of the Delaware colony. Wainman and William West were both related to the powerful baron. Of the four newly discovered persons, only Wainman and Hunt had children. Those family lines could allow for DNA comparisons after more genealogical research is conducted. Researchers first want to learn more about those related to Lord De La Warr.

Elsewhere in what is now the United States, other evidence of European settlements point to much earlier dates. Near Morganton, North Carolina, the remains of a fort believed to have been built by Spanish explorer Juan Pardo were unearthed in the foothills of the Applachians. Experts date the fortress to 1567, decades before the four Englishmen perished in Jamestown.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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