Skeletons From 400-Year-Old Gravesite Identified As Jamestown Leaders

A team of scientists singled out the names of the four men who died in Jamestown from 1608 through 1617. Donald E. Hurlbert.
Janet Fang 29 Jul 2015, 23:34

In 2013, an archaeological dig in America’s first colony of Jamestown, Virginia, uncovered four skeletons at a 1608 church (the one where Pocahontas married John Rolfe). Now, after combining skeletal analyses, chemical testing, context cues, and genealogical work, a team of researchers has revealed the identities of the four poorly-preserved remains: They belonged to colony founders and leaders who sailed across the Atlantic, according to an announcement made at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History this week. 

Because they were buried in a space at the front of the church around the altar, the men had to have been leading members of the community. So, the team of Smithsonian researchers and Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation archaeologists came up with a small list of prominent men who died between 1608 and 1617 using historical records. Then, they tested the skeletons to determine their approximate ages at death and used chemical tests to figure out their diet. Using high-resolution micro-CT scanning, they were able to reveal telling details of the artifacts buried with each of the men. Finally, the researchers cross-referenced theses data with detailed genealogies. 

Reverend Robert Hunt was the chaplain at Jamestown and the colony’s Anglican minister. Ministers were buried in a simple shroud, facing toward their congregation, and without a coffin, Nature explains. He died in 1608 at the age of 39.

Captain Gabriel Archer was buried alongside a captain’s leading staff and a mysterious silver box that suggested he may have been a (secret) Catholic. As a council member, he frequently battled with Captain John Smith and others over the leadership of the colony, Los Angeles Times explains. He died at the age of 34 in 1609 or 1610 during what's known as the “starving time.”

Sir Ferdinando Wainman, who came to Jamestown with his first cousin, the governor of Virginia, died around age 34 in 1610. His bones showed high levels of lead exposure, an indication of wealth since valuable items at the time, like pewter and glazed wares, contained more lead, Science explains.

Captain William West died in 1610 during a skirmish with the Powhatan at age 24. His military leader’s sash was adorned with silver bullion fringe and spangles. 

The men lived and died at a turning point in the history of the settlement, when it was on the brink of failure due to famine, disease, and conflict, according to Smithsonian’s Douglas Owsley. “The skeletons of these men help fill in the stories of their lives,” he adds, “and contribute to existing knowledge about the early years at Jamestown.” 

[Via Smithsonian Science News]

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