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3D renderings of the Jamestown skeletons, Jamestown,USA

Archaeologists Identify Remains of the Early Colonists of Jamestown


Scientists conducting a chemical analysis of four skeletons, with the support of information from historical documents, have now identified them as leaders of the first permanent English settlement on the American continent at Jamestown in Virginia.

The discovery was announced at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. which has been helping the team of archaeologists to identify the four men, who were of high status and played pivotal roles in their community. When they died they were buried at the Protestant Church in Jamestown, built in 1608; the same site where Captain John Rolfe married Pocahontas.Their bodies have now been discovered near the altar. Two of them had been buried in ornate coffins, although the bodies themselves were in a fairly poor state of preservation.

The site has been the subject of continued investigation since 1994 when the James Fort, which was believed to have been lost to the nearby James River, was rediscovered.

Map of Jamestown Fort (1677)

Map of Jamestown Fort (1677) (The Arthur/Google Fusion)

“What we have discovered here in the earliest English church in America are four of the first leaders of America” said historian James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, speaking to The Guardian. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else in this country.”

Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, explained to Live Science that the men were “very much at the heart of the foundation of the America that we know today”. Owsley helped to identify the bodies and believes that the analysis will help researchers to obtain a snapshot of what it was like to live in the early years of America. 

One of the men was Fernando Weyman, who died in 1610 aged 34. His nephew was Sir Thomas West who later became governor of the new state. Another was Captain William West, who was related to Weyman and who also died in 1610 after a fight with Powhatan Indians. He was identified by a partly-decayed military sash found with the skeleton. This was subjected to CT scanning which found a silk cloth decorated with a silver fringe. Both men were buried in human-shaped coffins studded with nails.

A third skeleton belonged to Captain Gabriel Archer who died in 1609, during a period known as the starving time. Over the course of six months nearly 250 people died. Some of them turned to cannibalism to survive, according to a report by the researchers published in 2013. Archer was also aged 34 when he died. The team was able to identify Archer by the staff he carried, tipped with an arrow. A reliquary was also found near his body. This contained fragments of bone and pieces of a lead container which had once contained holy water, indicating he had secretly retained his Catholic beliefs.

The fourth man was Reverend Robert Hunt who died in 1608, aged 39. He was wrapped in a shroud and buried facing west, as if to face his congregation. 

The four skeletons discovered at the old Jamestown church, Jamestown, USA

The four skeletons discovered at the old Jamestown church, Jamestown, USA (Smithsonian)

The colony at Jamestown began with disembarkation of English colonists from ships along the James River, who then began to build a fortified settlement. Several more ships arrived over the next few years and the colony began to grow.

An earlier attempt at colonization had been made at Roanoke, but this failed. When the leader of the colony, John White returned after travelling to England to fetch supplies, a journey that lasted three years, Roanoke had simply disappeared. To this day, no-one knows what happened, although there are a number of popular theories suggesting that the colonists had been killed by local Indians, wiped out by disease, or had simply left and gone elsewhere.

The archaeologists studied genealogical and historical documents from England and from the colonies, as well as artifacts, during their investigation. An analysis was undertaken of the chemicals in the skeletons which revealed the bodies as high status individuals due to the amount of lead in their bones. This was caused by the tendency among the aristocratic classes to drink from pewter containing lead, and to use ceramics with lead glazing.

Further research on the bodies is being considered even though the remains are poorly preserved. It may be possible to extract some DNA, thereby providing further proof of their identities. The team would ideally like to identify more members of the community, but this may prove to be extremely difficult given that there are even fewer traces of them. For example, women of the time were overshadowed by their husbands, which means they were rarely mentioned in records of the time.

To learn more on life and death at early Jamestown, USA, watch the following video, provided by the History Channel:

Watch the Video

Featured Image:3D renderings of the Jamestown skeletons, Jamestown,USA (Smithsonian X 3D)

By Robin Whitlock



Interesting TEDx-talk about New Netherlands:

Yes, the history of the US: the 13 original 'English' states...
Well actually 12 original English states and 1 Dutch state - which shaped the US like no other ...
New Netherlands - which later became New York state (and others).

Robin Whitlock's picture

Robin Whitlock

Robin Whitlock is a British freelance journalist with numerous interests, particularly archaeology and the history of the ancient world, an interest that developed in childhood. He has numerous published magazine articles to his credit on a variety of subjects, including... Read More

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