Historic grave in Jamestown

Skeleton: If this is Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, "then we've found the `lost-to-history' burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization," an archaeologist says.

February 27, 2003|By Mark St. John Erickson | Mark St. John Erickson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JAMES CITY, Va. -- When Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold died at Jamestown in August 1607, the faltering English settlement lost one of its most able and respected commanders.

Council President Edward Maria Wingfield picked out the death for special mention, describing the 36-year-old adventurer as "the worthy and religious gentleman upon whose life stood a great part of the good success and fortune of our colony."

Another settler recorded how the dispirited colonists, despite being racked by hunger and disease, gathered their strength to bury Gosnold with a military salute in which they fired all of the fort's guns "with many volleys of small shot."

Nearly 400 years later, archaeologists digging near the stronghold's west palisade may have opened a new window onto this sobering funeral.

Probing beneath a trash pit that dates to the 1630s, they have uncovered the still-earlier, unusually well-preserved remains of a skeleton that was buried with the telltale addition of a ceremonial military staff.

"If this is Gosnold, then we've found the `lost-to-history' burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization," said William M. Kelso, chief archaeologist for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, at a Jamestown news conference.

"It was Gosnold who brought John Smith, Christopher Newport and Edward Maria Wingfield together at his home in Suffolk, England. He was the colony's moving force."

Uncovered by archaeologists in December, the grave and its contents posed a tantalizing but impenetrable find until the scientists began examining the still-unidentified remains of the wood and iron staff in early January.

Scanning the tip with the aid of X-ray equipment at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., conservator Michael Lavin was the first to confirm that the baffling length of lumpy rust and sand might provide a clue to the name of the skeleton in the grave.

"When I saw that it might be a cruciform finial, I got so excited that I actually called from NASA and said, `Bill, you're not going to believe this!'" Lavin said. "`We've got to start working on this right away!'"

Decorative iron blade

Two days later, after removing as much as 1 inch of corrosion with a precision air-abrasion tool, Lavin, Kelso and their colleagues were able to identity the artifact as the decorative iron blade of a high-ranking officer's half-pike, flag staff or walking stick.

Several other features, including a series of brass-headed rivets, lead Kelso to believe that the staff may have incorporated a long-since disintegrated banner and that the Jamestown colonists draped it over the coffin as part of a formal military burial.

Such unusual pomp and circumstance combined with the overlapping dates of the burial and the influential commander's death make Kelso think that Gosnold is the most likely occupant of the grave.

A preliminary assessment of the settler's age, which was conducted by famed Smithsonian Institution forensic osteologist Douglas Owsley, has provided additional weight to the argument.

"Gosnold's is the only record we have of such a honorable burial," Kelso said, discussing the documentary evidence of Jamestown's earliest days.

"And when you look at his age and the estimated age of the remains, that's really the theory we want to check out."

Four other settlers, including Capt. Gabriel Archer, who accompanied Gosnold on his pioneering 1602 voyage to New England, have been considered in the effort to identify the skeleton.

But none had Gosnold's rank and standing as what John Smith later described as "one of the first movers of this plantation."

More work needed

Still, Kelso acknowledged that much more work must be done in order to prove definitively that the remains are those of Gosnold. He's contacted the Virginia Institution of Forensic Science and Medicine for advice about the possibility of confirming or disproving the theory through mitochondrial DNA testing.

Such tests could be complicated by the age of the remains and the problem of finding a direct maternal descendant of Gosnold after nearly 400 years.

But Owsley, whose current projects include identifying the remains of the sailors found aboard the wreck of the Civil War submarine CSS Hunley, expressed optimism about this case.

"It's very difficult to get DNA out of ancient material. The best likelihood is getting it from a tooth, which is an enclosed chamber, or from the femur," he said.

"But if there is a chance of getting DNA out of any of the skeletons at Jamestown, it's here. This is absolutely the best-preserved skeleton that has been found. I'm amazed at the condition of the remains."

Mark St. John Erickson is a reporter for the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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