Jamestown history is rewritten Archaeology: One man's refusal to accept conventional thinking results in finding traces of the first settlement in Virginia, a fort long thought to have been lost to the ravages of time and the James River.


November 27, 1997|By June Arney | By June Arney,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JAMESTOWN ISLAND, Va. -- Until recently, the first fort at the Jamestown settlement was believed to be lost forever, its secrets washed into the nearby James River. That's what the history books said.

William Kelso, visiting Jamestown more than three decades ago as a 21-year-old history graduate student, didn't want to accept that. And so, many years later, he found soil stains where oak and walnut posts once formed the walls of the original 1607 triangular fort at the western tip of Jamestown.

Kelso's discovery has changed 200 years of thinking. Historians had believed that the fort was smaller and on a different part of the island. When archaeologists failed to find clues to the fort, they assumed that the evidence had been eroded away by the James River.

Now new maps will be printed to locate the fort at Kelso's dig site.

Kelso, now 56, is chief archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery, a project that has spent more than $1 million in 3 1/2 years trying to clear up mysteries of the first permanent English colony in America -- where Pocahontas and John Smith walked, years before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Then why do the latecomer Pilgrims get all the attention? Bill Stolz, a park intern, thinks it's a matter of motivation. Jamestown was a quest for gold and profit. Plymouth Colony gets better press, he thinks, because it was born of people seeking religious freedom.

Still, Stolz says, Jamestown is "one of those sites that's sacred to people. One person told me she could feel the ghosts walking here."

Visitors find a working lab and a public excavation site where Kelso and six other archaeologists spend as much time talking to people and showing off daily finds of pottery shards and other artifacts as they do digging and cataloging.

"We have found that James Fort survives, and it's so extensive that it's beyond my lifetime to study it," Kelso says.

The original fort stood only briefly, protecting early settlers from the Powhatan Indians. It burned in January 1608, then was rebuilt as a five-sided structure.

No walls of the first fort remain, but their presumed dimensions are roped off with yellow cord for visitors to see. The dig site is concentrated in one corner of the roped-off area. An indentation in the ground indicates where a semi-circular corner bastion once held cannons.

Soil stains mark where a picket fence of wooden posts once rose out of the ground in the palisade wall. The markings, the result of decaying wood or topsoil that filled in the old post holes, are darker brown than the yellowish, tan clay that surrounds them -- easy to see once an archaeologist scores their outline. To aid the imagination of visitors, the archaeologists have created a plaster cast of part of the fort wall.

Kelso believes that about 80 percent of the palisade did not wash away and remains underground to be unearthed. So far, about 5 percent of the site has been excavated.

Diggers have found tens of thousands of artifacts dating to the 17th century, including the skeleton of an early settler, with a bullet hole near his right knee, and a brass signet ring thought to have belonged to William Strachey, an early settler. Some experts believe that Strachey, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a letter about a shipwreck adventure that inspired Shakespeare's play, "The Tempest."

Kelso, who has no formal schooling in archaeology, is ruddy from the sun of many days of digging. He dresses casually in jeans, Patagonia jacket and Air Nikes. He likens his work to investigating a crime scene, putting together pieces of evidence, speculating about the people who lived and died here.

He walks to the spot where, in 1963, a park ranger gave him the disappointing news that the original fort was gone. As a boy, Kelso had read about Jamestown excavations in National Geographic.

Now, instead of the original fort, he was shown a glass window into the side of an earthen Civil War fort. He saw multiple layers of soil, hinting at the layers of history waiting to be discovered.

Why couldn't one of those layers, he wondered, be the testimony of Jamestown's first decade?

Kelso became a specialist in British Colonial America. He studied field notes and artifacts from a National Park Service excavation of Jamestown in the 1950s and thought he saw footprints of the original palisade.

He found encouragement from Ivor Noel-Hume, archaeology director for nearly 30 years in nearby Colonial Williamsburg. Noel-Hume says he literally pointed Kelso to the spot he should start digging. Earlier estimates had positioned the fort in a different part of the island, nearer to where the ships landed.

In 1993, Kelso convinced the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities that a search for the fort would be a worthwhile project to mark Jamestown's 400th anniversary.

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