In May 1607, around 100 English settlers founded what would be the first permanent colony in the Americas on a narrow peninsula in the James River, 60 miles from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. To protect against attacks from local Native Americans as well as Spanish ships, they built a wooden fort in the shape of a triangle, surrounding a storehouse, a number of houses and the first Protestant church in the New World. This week, archaeologists excavating the ruins of that church announced they have identified the remains of four of Jamestown’s most prominent founders, along with a mysterious object that raises questions about the role religion played in the colony.
As early as 1837, eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the ruins of the James Fort submerged in the James River, off the western shore of Jamestown Island, where the settlers landed in 1607. But archaeologist William Kelso wasn’t on board with the “lost colony” theory: He believed the red-brick church tower, built in the 17th century and still standing, had been built near the fort’s center. In 1994, Kelso launched the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, and within several years he and his team had found enough evidence to prove the remains of James Fort were in fact located on dry land, near the church tower.
In late 2010, the archaeologists working at Jamestown found five deep post holes, matching colony records of a 60-foot-long church known to have been built in early 1608, after a fire destroyed much of the fort. The first Protestant church built in the New World, the building fell into disrepair during the bleak winter of 1609-10, a period known as the “starving time” in Jamestown, but was later repaired and in 1614 saw the wedding of Englishman John Rolfe to the Native American princess Pocahontas. (The red-brick tower, the only 17th-century structure still standing above ground in Jamestown, actually belonged to the colony’s fifth church, built in the 1670s-‘80s.)
Inside the chancel, or altar area, located at the east end of the ruined 1608 church, archaeologists found four side-by-side graves. Excavations of the graves in November 2013 yielded only 30 percent of each skeleton, but the researchers were able to use forensic testing along with archaeological, historical and genealogical records to determine the identity of the graves’ inhabitants.
In a news conference at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History earlier this week, the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and the Smithsonian Institution announced that three of the men honored with such a prominent burial were the Reverand Robert Hunt, believed to be the first Anglican minister in the Americas; Sir Fernando Wainman, an English knight and cousin of Sir Thomas West, the first governor of Virginia; and Captain William West, a young uncle of the governor. Placed atop the grave of a fourth man—Captain Gabriel Archer, who was one of Jamestown’s most prominent early leaders and an outspoken critic of Captain John Smith—the researchers made an exciting find: a small silver box containing seven bone fragments and a small lead ampulla, the type of flask used to contain holy water.
The hexagonal box, the surface of which is etched with the letter “M” and what appear to be arrows, has remained sealed. After looking inside via X-rays and high-tech scans, and using a 3-D printer to replicate the box and its contents, researchers have identified it as a reliquary, a container for holy relics used in the Roman Catholic tradition.
What would a Catholic artifact, which predated the Protestant Reformation, be doing in Post-Reformation Jamestown, buried along with the community’s leaders? Researchers are wondering whether Archer, whose parents had been persecuted back in England because of their Catholic faith, may have in fact been a secret Catholic himself, or that there might have been a Catholic cell among the Protestants in Jamestown. Alternatively, the reliquary might be an artifact used in the early days of the Anglican Church’s founding in the New World. Either way, its presence in Archer’s grave suggests another layer of complexity in the role religion played in the lives of Jamestown settlers.
According to the analysis of his remains, Archer probably died during the “starving time,” a period of six months during the winter of 1609-10 when prolonged drought and tensions with the Powhatan Confederacy, the dominant Native American tribe in the region, spelled disaster for Jamestown’s colonists. In 1610, when three ships arrived from England, the new arrivals found James Fort in dire condition, with its palisade torn down and the church deteriorating. Of the 300 colonists that had been there the previous fall, only around 60 emaciated survivors remained. In 2013, archaeologists announced they had discovered the skeleton of a young girl with cut marks on her bones, suggesting the settlers even resorted to cannibalism during this dire period.