Uncovering James Fort for Years, Archaeologists Thought the Site of the First Permanent English Settlement in the New World Had Been Washed Away by Erosion, but William Kelso Believed Otherwise - and after 30 Months of Digging, He and His Team of Researchers Have Proved He Was Right

By Mark Sappenfield, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 23, 1996 | Go to article overview

Uncovering James Fort for Years, Archaeologists Thought the Site of the First Permanent English Settlement in the New World Had Been Washed Away by Erosion, but William Kelso Believed Otherwise - and after 30 Months of Digging, He and His Team of Researchers Have Proved He Was Right


Mark Sappenfield, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


On an April day two years ago, Dr. William Kelso grabbed a shovel, walked the few hundred yards from the front door of his Jamestown Island home to the shore of the James River, and began digging.

Dr. Kelso, director of archaeology, for the Association for the Protection of Virginia Antiquities, believed that the remains of James Fort - the first permanent English settlement in the New World - lay buried beneath his feet.

If his hunch was correct, he had come upon one of the most important archaeological finds in the United States, a window into the beginnings of what eventually became America. But there were haunting reasons to think he was wrong. In 1957, a team of archaeologists had come here determined to find the elusive fort. They failed. After digging an extensive web of narrow trenches across the island, they came up with only shards and bits of armor - nothing to indicate the substantial fortifications they were looking for. Dismayed, they surmised that severe erosion had taken James Fort to the bottom of the James River, a conclusion supported by eyewitness accounts of visitors to Jamestown Island in the 1800s, who said they saw the remains of James Fort being washed away, . This theory became gospel. In fact, Kelso remembers asking a member of the National Park Service where the fort was located when he visited here as a graduate student a few years after the '57 dig. "He said, 'Oh, I'm sorry,' and he pointed out into the middle of the river. But I said, 'How do you know that?' and I started grilling him," Kelso recalls with a wry smile, fully realizing he now has the last laugh. "As I recall, he conceded, 'We really think it's out there, but it's possible, maybe it does survive.' " Kelso filed that "but" on a dusty shelf in the back of his memory. Thirty years later it helped spur him on to find the fort that had eluded so many others. Ironically, Kelso was led to revisit the site by the very artifacts unearthed in 1957 - and by Bly Straube. Ms. Straube, one of Kelso's longtime colleagues, was hired by the National Park Service in 1986 to date its archive of artifacts, including those from the '57 dig. In 1957, historical archaeology was still a new science (in contrast to prehistorical archaeology - which had been around for a long time). The hundreds of books and dozens of experts that now help archaeologists date artifacts did not exist, so the archaeologists could only estimate how old their artifacts were, plus or minus 50 years. Straube, however, had spent her adult life looking at things pulled from 17th-century earth. She and co-worker Nick Luccketti had worked more 17th-century sites than anyone in Virginia. But as Straube began dating the artifacts, she found that the pieces were older than any she had seen. "The amount of 16th-century material was just unbelievable," she says. During long nights spent hunched over thousands of crumbling artifacts, Straube slowly began piecing together the puzzle of James Fort's fate. She found musket matchlocks from the 1560s and ceramics from the late Tudor period, which ended with the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603 - four years before James Fort was settled. This finding was critical, she explains, because "ceramics usually break not far from their time of manufacture, so if you find ceramics that date to the late 16th century, you know you're dealing with a pretty old site." When she told Kelso of her discovery, he was convinced. He had doubted the 1957 survey from the beginning. Back in 1957, he was an undergraduate student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio. It was exam time, and Kelso found himself in the library, frustrated with the act of pretending to study. He wandered over to the magazine rack and picked up a copy of what he thinks was a National Geographic. Splashed across its pages were pictures of the Jamestown Island dig. He remembers one shot in particular, an aerial photograph looking over the whole site.

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Uncovering James Fort for Years, Archaeologists Thought the Site of the First Permanent English Settlement in the New World Had Been Washed Away by Erosion, but William Kelso Believed Otherwise - and after 30 Months of Digging, He and His Team of Researchers Have Proved He Was Right
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