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Excavation of 400-Year-Old Jamestown Fort Yields More Than 1 Million Artifacts

A church tower built in 1639 is all that remains above ground of 17th century Jamestown. But everyday, archaeologists unearth hundreds of objects from the early 17th century, all within the foundations of the 1607 fort.

Until William Kelso came along, no one believed it was still there, buried under layers of dirt. "The conventional wisdom was that the 1607 fort - that which is 400 years old this year -- couldn't be found because river erosion had taken it and destroyed it," Kelso says.

But in 1994, Kelso, the Director of Archaeology at Historic Jamestowne, proved them wrong. "We've found almost the entire fort itself was not only -- not -- washed away, but it is all here on land, the buried remains of the walls and the buildings and the artifacts that were there," he says. "Over a million objects have been found that date to this early 17th century time period."

Kelso's crew is currently scraping away layers of dirt within an old well to uncover buried artifacts. "A well is an absolute time capsule," Kelso says. "People begin to lose things, drop things. It begins to fill in and then once there is no more water, you fill in the hole with garbage and trash."

What was trash is now treasure, carefully cleaned on the banks of the James River. Then, in the laboratory, everything from the excavation is examined, cataloged and analyzed by Bly Straube, senior curator at Historic Jamestowne. It's her job to determine what role each artifact may have had in the lives of the people who lived here 400 years ago.

Every object, every shard of pottery reveals something, says Straube. "If you know how to read the material, if you can put it all into context," she says, "they can talk to you just like a document can."

Archaeologists have found a wealth of objects, including surgical tools, body armor, fine Chinese porcelain, and a trumpet mouthpiece. That mouthpiece, says Straube, "has caused so much excitement among musical historians, because traditionally the trumpet was brought to America by Germans in the 18th century, and here we have earlier evidence."

Together, all of the artifacts reveal a rich and varied life in Jamestown for the colonists. Archaeologist William Kelso says they also show a commitment on the part of the immigrants, a commitment that wasn't made clear in some of the writings we have about the earliest years in the colony. "The documentary evidence, which was very scanty, has been looked over for at least 100 or more years," he says. "That story has always been incomplete and a bit like a myth, that Jamestown wasn't a serious commitment of the Europeans to settle and it failed. What we are finding is hard, concrete evidence that it endured."

Captain John Smith, who was an early leader of the colony, anticipated that Jamestown would become a great city. Instead, the settlement picked up and moved up river in 1699 to what is now Williamsburg. Bly Straube is thankful that Jamestown didn't become a metropolis. "Because if it had," she says, "we would not have the wealth of material we have found today. It would all have been destroyed or buried."

For many centuries it was buried. But now, as Americans mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, they are getting a fresh perspective on the life of the colonists by examining some of what they left behind.