Researchers identify four skeletons from Jamestown

Donald E. Hurlbert, Smithsonian Institution

Researchers identify four skeletons from Jamestown

Two years after archaeologists unearthed the 400-year-old skeletal remains of four leaders of America’s first colony, Jamestown, Virginia, they have figured out their names. All four were found buried around the altar of a Jamestown church that stood for a brief period from 1608 to 1617. The site was reserved exclusively for the most important colony leaders. (An interesting aside—it was the same church in which Pocahontas married John Rolfe.) Using the specific time frame in which the church existed, the team searched through historical records from the Virginia Company (sponsor of the Jamestown adventure) and colonists’ recorded accounts to compile a list of possible identities for the deceased leaders. Then they made the final identifications by investigating a handful of rare and extremely delicate artifacts found with the bones. Two of the men, Captain Gabriel Archer and Reverend Robert Hunt, sailed over as part of the original venture to Jamestown, the team announced today at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captain William West, the other men identified, arrived 3 years later. Alongside their skeletons, each Englishman had specific clues that helped the team decipher who was who. Hunt was Jamestown’s first Anglican minister, and scientists identified him through age and the orientation in which he was buried—traditionally, ministers were buried facing toward their congregation, just as Hunt was. Archaeologists found several fragments of history buried with Archer: a captain’s leading staff, a small silver box, and a journal. Using CT scans, scientists were able to see inside the little box, revealing holy relics that pointed to Archer’s potentially secret Catholic faith, hinting at a possible religious power struggle during this time. Chemical analyses of Wainman’s bones showed high levels of lead exposure, a sign that he was wealthy, as more valuable items during this time, such as pewter and glazed wares, contained more lead. Finally, using CT scans, scientists identified tattered remnants of West’s military sash, the silver bullion fringe and spangle décor still intact. The discovery is timely, as some scientists think Jamestown (on the Virginia coast) could be overtaken by rising sea levels by the end of this century.