Digging Up Jamestown

To most people, the science of archaeology has the faintly exotic aura of faraway places and long-dead civilizations. But our own country, too, has its buried past, and a fascinating and often puzzling one it is. This is true not only—as might be expected—of the remains of pre-Columbian Indian cultures, but surprisingly, of the more recent colonial era as well. Indeed, we know less about certain aspects of seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century life in America than we do about comparable facets of Greek or even Egyptian culture.

Jamestown is a case in point. For all that has been written on the first permanent British colony in the New World, much about it still remains in the realm of surmise. Here is where the archaeologist has been useful—for to a trained eye, a fragment of glass, the remains of a musket, or the location of a building foundation or a graveyard can reveal an amazing variety of information.

What follows is an account of some of the discoveries made on the site of the Jamestown settlement; it is taken from Ivor Noël Hume’s Here Lies Virginia , to be published in June by Alfred A. Knopf. One of the leading authorities in the field of colonial American archaeology, the author is an Englishman who first made his reputation excavating the antiquities of London; since 1957, he has been the chief archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

Even though many visitors arrive at Jamestown and ask to be shown Plymouth Rock and the relics of the Pilgrims, I do not propose to wade too far into the murky waters of early Jamestown history. They contain strong currents of controversy in which one can very easily be swept away and drowned. Some authors have used the abundant contemporary narratives to show that the colonists of 1607 were a dedicated group of intensely religious idealists bringing civilization into a savage land; others have used different passages from the same sources to prove that the colonists were little better than a pack of rabid dogs. But dogs or demigods, there is no denying that they had immense courage and a fortitude that is rarely matched in this twentieth century.

We are not here concerned with the squabbling of the Wingfields, Newports, Percys, Gosnolds, and the like, nor should we try to pontificate on the validity of the story of Pocahontas and that celebrated exaggerator, John Smith. That carcass has been picked many times before. We are concerned, however, with those pages of Jamestown’s history that relate to the marks that the settlers left behind in the ground. From these come the archaeologists’ deductions and ultimately the reconstructions and interpretations that are enjoyed by modern visitors to the island.

Unfortunately, no seventeenth-century ships have been found nestled in the muddy bed of the James River, and consequently the most impressive and evocative of all the sights to be seen at Jamestown have no archaeological background. I mean, of course, the reconstructions of the ships, the Susan Constant , the Godspeed , and the little Discovery , which brought the first Jamestown colonists to Virginia in May, 1607. Built for the 35oth anniversary in 1957, they now lie in the James close by the reconstructed fort, as lasting reminders of the bravery of the colonists. The largest, the Susan Constant of one hundred tons, carried seventy-one persons; the Godspeed of forty tons, fiftytwo; and the Discovery of twenty tons, twenty-one. This last was only forty-nine feet in length, little more than a fishing boat, and was of a type known as a “pinnace,” from the Latin pinus , “ i.e. , a pine tree, of which it was commonly made.”

The sight of this little vessel bobbing at its moorings brings home to us, as nothing else can, the courage and faith of those first passengers. Many of us would have doubts about the safety of crossing the James in it on a rough day, let alone attempting a five-month journey across the Atlantic. Quite apart from the impact of their small size, the sight of their masts and spars in the distance as one leaves the island gives one a vision of the past that is unforgettable. I have seen these ships a thousand times, silhouetted against a setting sun, rising ghostlike from a shroud of early morning mist, and frozen fast into a sea of winter ice. But I doubt if I shall ever cease to be thrilled by the awareness that I am surveying a scene almost exactly as it was viewed through the eyes of colonists and Indians alike, 350-odd years ago.

I am certain that some archaeologists will claim that such romantic notions have no place in the serious study of the past. If, in admitting them, I am thought to be letting the team down, I can only counter that if we are unable to use the surviving words and relics of history to enable the past to live again in our own minds, how can we ever hope to make it of interest to others? A great deal of time and money has been spent (some of it hideously wasted) up and down the country in enabling tourists to enjoy looking at the past—from a safe distance. Rarely has a project been as successful as the reconstruction of the fort at Jamestown. It is true that it is not on the original site, and that it is rather more sturdy and certainly much cleaner than was the original. But as you walk among its wattle-anddaub houses on a cold winter day, you begin to feel what it must have been like to be far from home, cabined, cribbed, confined behind mud walls, longing for spring and the sight of a sail bringing food and succor from England.