JAMESTOWN, Va. - After two years of digging that has yielded 90,000 artifacts, archaeologists searching for the original English settlement at Jamestown are close to saying for sure that they have located the footprint of the first fort.
They're so close that Gov. George Allen has promised to make a "grand announcement" Wednesday on the island, according to officials of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, the group that owns the Jamestown property on which the excavation has been conducted. About 600 invitations "for a global announcement of extraordinary archaeological finds" have been sent out, said APVA spokesman Tim Kolly.
If archaeologists conclude that the remains of a wooden palisade wall found along the riverbank are the remnants of the 1607 fort built by Capt. John Smith as part of the earliest permanent English settlement in the New World, such an announcement represents a milestone in American archaeology, said Dennis Blanton, co-director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the College of William and Mary.
"If they have it, it's a world-class discovery," Blanton said. "It deserves any attention it gets. But 'if' is the key word."
Since it began, archaeologists involved in the dig have eagerly shared their progress with the public, exhibiting crucial links in the search such as copper coins stamped "1601" and other artifacts. But archaeologists and APVA organizers of next month's announcement suddenly have become secretive.
"We're not supposed to be talking about it," said Bly Straube, curator of the Jamestown Rediscovery project.
Kolly said researchers "have not confirmed the discovery of the fort," but added that his organization would not schedule an announcement unless the archaeologists were "comfortable." Archaeologists and APVA officials have long said they would not make any such formal announcement until they have assembled an indisputable case.
For years, most archaeologists thought the last traces of the first fort were long since swept away by erosion along the James River.
"The scientists have the last say," Kolly said. Asked whether archaeologists will have evidence by Wednesday that would show conclusively the original fort had been found, he said, "We're hoping to."
That hasn't happened yet, said William Kelso, project director.
"We hope we'll find something in next few weeks," he said. "We've just accumulated little bits of the puzzle, like we've been doing."
Last month, Kelso said an "absolute sign of a fort" would be evidence of a bastion that served as a corner of the triangular structure. Kelso declined Tuesday to say whether such evidence has been found.
Straube said the dig site continues to yield items of interest, but no definitive artifact has been unearthed. "I'd like to say we've found something to say, 'John Smith was here,' but we don't have it," Straube said. "Every day, there's new surprises coming up; that's what makes this such an exciting excavation."
Pub Date: 9/08/96.