- Historic Sites
Digging Up Jamestown
Where the written word leaves off, the spade must often take over. A well-known archaeologist relates what the earth has revealed about the first permanent British colony in America
April 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 3
Whereas the first State House was part of a threestructure complex, the third was the most northerly of five buildings, all linked together with common walls. The same foundations served as the site of the fourth State House, built after the rebellion of 1676, and archaeological evidence suggests that the third State House was roofed with tiles and the fourth with slate. Beyond that, little is known. In his report on the excavations at Jamestown, John Cotter notes that the foundations of the third State House revealed no traces of chimneys; this, he suggests, might represent an early attempt at fire prevention. Such measures were certainly admirable, though the results were less so. The third State House was burnt by Bacon as already described, the fourth burned in 1698, the first Williamsburg capitol in 1744, and the second in 1832, all of them brick buildings and all, save the last, without chimneys.
The destruction of the fourth State House marked the end of Jamestown as the administrative capital of Virginia, the legislators voting to move inland to Middle Plantation—later renamed Williamsburg—where the College of William and Mary had been erected in 1693. The legend has long been fostered that at the end of the seventeenth century, immediately prior to the burning of the State House, Jamestown “was a crowded, cluttered town.” It has been inferred that when the legislators moved their meeting place, the inhabitants of the “crowded” town packed their bags and moved to the new site. Had this been true, it would be reasonable to expect that they would have carried their seventeenth-century glass, pottery, kitchen utensils, and what-not along with them, and that in the course of time a reasonable percentage of those things would have found their way into the ground of Williamsburg. However, in thirty years of excavation, Williamsburg archaeologists have come up with no more than a handful of fragments of seventeenth-century pottery—and most of that dating so close to the end of the century that there is no reason to associate it with Jamestown. On the basis of archaeology’s negative evidence, it could be supposed that there was no domestic exodus from Jamestown to Williamsburg. The documentary evidence suggests quite convincingly that in 1676 Jamestown possessed fewer than twenty good houses and a community of some twelve families, most of whom were probably engaged in the tavern trade. Although the town’s importance sharply declined when the Assembly moved away, ships continued to lie at anchor in the James and sailors still needed to be entertained and suitably primed for the long voyage back to England.
The fact that archaeological excavations at Jamestown have unearthed as many artifacts from the first quarter of the eighteenth century as from the last quarter of the seventeenth would indicate that there was no immediate decline in the intensity of occupation. Probably more lethal to the life of Jamestown than the departure of the Assembly was the rapid increase in the importance of the port of Yorktown and the slower development of Archer’s Hope and later College Landing, the port for Williamsburg, both of which kept shipping down river from Jamestown.
And yet, just as the memory of the adventures of the “Lost Colony” on Roanoke Island had remained alive through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so the memory of the ordeals of Jamestown’s motley band of founding fathers glowed brightly through the nineteenth. Their fortitude was praised at the Bicentennial of 1807, their sacrifice was lauded at the Virginiad of 1822 and again at the 25Oth anniversary in 1857. At the Tercentenary of 1907 they shared the spotlight with Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill, a German beer garden, a re-enactment of the battle of the Monitor and Merrimac , and as many other exposition attractions as its organizers could dream up. For five glorious months the suffering, courage, and perseverance of the Jamestown colonists were feted in a bombardment of fireworks and candy, highlighted by the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt, who arrived in Hampton Roads to review the fleet—rather thoughtlessly, one might think, aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower . Happily the 1907 circus was held outside Norfolk and not on the historic site itself. Happily, for there is no doubt that the celebration would have destroyed the archaeological remains of Virginia’s first capital. As it was, the destruction was left to nature, whose winds and waters whittled away at the historic shoreline until an extensive riprap protection project was undertaken in 1935.
With the approach of the 35oth anniversary celebrations, the National Park Service undertook a liberal program of excavation under the direction of Dr. Cotter, lasting from 1954 until 1956. But even when this work was completed, more than half of Jamestown’s soil remained unexplored. At the present time, the Park Service has no immediate plans for further excavations, although work on the huge collection of artifacts goes on, and will continue for many years.
No attempt has been made to reconstruct the houses of Jamestown, as has been done at nearby Williamsburg. Instead, most of the old foundations have been reburied and the outlines of the buildings marked out on the surface by modern low brick walls whose uneven height creates an impression of weathered antiquity. About a mile to the west on the mainland stands the 1957 Festival Park, and it is there that the fort has been reconstructed, the reproduced ships moored, and various exhibit buildings erected. Unlike the Exposition grounds of 1907, the Festival Park was not abandoned when the year was out. It remains a permanent museum and memorial to the Jamestown story.