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
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
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. …