Jul
28

America’s earliest colonists may have taken their secrets to the grave, but that doesn’t mean they’ll remain there

Old-fashioned field work and new-fangled technology reveal the identities of four prominent citizens of the first English colony in America and raise some intriguing questions about how they lived and died.

 

A statue of John Smith gazes out at the James River on the site of the first English colony in America. (Courtesy National Park Service)

A statue of John Smith gazes out at the James River on the site of the first English colony in America. (Courtesy National Park Service)

As the first permanent English colony in the New World, the site of historic Jamestown in southeastern Virginia has long offered a wealth of important clues to the history of early settlers in America. The discovery of the remains of four men buried within Jamestown’s 1608 church—the location of Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe—reveals new insights about life, death and the importance of religion in one of England’s most critical settlements. Today, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestowne announced the identities of four men buried in the church. Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony.

“This is an extraordinary discovery,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery. “Two of the men, Archer and Hunt, were with the first expedition, which established Jamestown in May 1607. And the other two, Wainman and West, arrived with Lord De La Warr and helped save the colony three years later. These men were among the first founders of English America.”

After being lost to history for more than 400 years, the skeletons and archaeological materials were found beneath the chancel area of Jamestown’s church at the front of the structure where a communion table would have been located and where only elite members of the community would have been buried.

Smithsonian forensic anthropologists Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide and colleague Ashley McKeown examine the grave of Rev. Robert Hunt. In July 2015, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Jamestown Rediscovery announced the identities of Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West, high-status leaders who helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony. (Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution)

Smithsonian forensic anthropologists Doug Owsley and Kari Bruwelheide and colleague Ashley McKeown examine the grave of Rev. Robert Hunt. In July 2015, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Jamestown Rediscovery announced the identities of Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West, high-status leaders who helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony. (Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution)

“With the discovery of four burials in the chancel of the church, we looked forward to the challenge of identifying these individuals by name,” said Douglas Owsley, division head of physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History. “The skeletons of these men help fill in the stories of their lives and contribute to existing knowledge about the early years at Jamestown.”

To determine the men’s identities from the unearthed bones, Owsley and his team worked with archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery. They used multiple lines of evidence, including archaeology, skeletal analyses, chemical testing, 3-D technology and genealogical research, to single out the names of the four men from dozens of English colonists who died at Jamestown from 1608 through 1617, when the church fell into disrepair.

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.

The bones were poorly preserved, with only about 30 percent of each skeleton recovered, but the Smithsonian’s research team determined the sex, age at death, diet and presence of heavy metals for each individual. In July 2015, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Jamestown Rediscovery announced the identities of Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West, high-status leaders who helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony. (Photo by James Di Loreto / Smithsonian Institution)

The bones were poorly preserved, with only about 30 percent of each skeleton recovered, but the Smithsonian’s research team determined the sex, age at death, diet and presence of heavy metals for each individual. (Photo by James Di Loreto / Smithsonian Institution)

Archaeologists investigated the four burials in November 2013 and partnered with the Smithsonian to identify the remains. The research team first relied on the few surviving historical records from the colony’s initial years and narrowed the list of potential candidates to a small number of prominent men who died between 1608 and 1617. The bones were poorly preserved, with only about 30 percent of each skeleton recovered, but the research team determined the sex of the individuals and their approximate ages at death. The team also conducted chemical analyses to examine diet, the presence of heavy metals and the origins of the individuals. This information, paired with the style of coffins and associated artifacts found at the site, led the scientists to match this set of remains to the following four men:

Rev. Robert Hunt

Rev. Robert Hunt was born in Hampshire, England, in 1569 and died in 1608 around the age of 39. He was the first Anglican minister at Jamestown and served the colony until his death. Capt. John Smith described him as a godly man who by his own example served as a peacemaker among the colony’s fractious leaders. The research team identified him by his age and style of burial: he was buried facing west toward the people he served, his congregation. Hunt was also buried in a shroud, not a coffin. Most men who died during the first, tenuous year at Jamestown were buried in a similar fashion. A simple shroud burial without a coffin reflects Hunt’s status within the settlement and his humble nature and profession.

Capt. Gabriel Archer

Capt. Gabriel Archer was born in Essex, England, in 1575 and died in late 1609 or early 1610 at the age of 34 during the “starving time,” a six-month period during which approximately 250 settlers perished at Jamestown from disease, starvation and Indian attacks. His journal entries indicate that he led some of the earliest expeditions in the Jamestown colony and was a nemesis of Capt. John Smith. Archer’s remains were suspected when archaeologists discovered remnants of a coffin and a captain’s leading staff with the bones.

Capt. Gabriel Archer’s remains were suspected when archaeologists discovered remnants of a captain’s leading staff with the bones. In July 2015, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Jamestown Rediscovery announced the identities of Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West, high-status leaders who helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony. (Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery/Preservation Virginia)

Capt. Gabriel Archer’s remains were suspected when archaeologists discovered remnants of a captain’s leading staff with the bones. (Photo courtesy of Jamestown Rediscovery/Preservation Virginia)

The team also found a small, well-preserved silver box resting on a small piece of preserved wood from Archer’s coffin. Extensive high-resolution CT scans of the sealed box revealed that it is likely a Catholic reliquary encapsulating seven fragments of bone and two pieces of a lead ampulla, a container used to hold holy water. Religion played a prominent role at Jamestown, and many efforts were made to convert the neighboring Powhatan tribes to the Anglican Church, culminating in the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe in 1614.

The presence of the reliquary, however, suggests that at least one of the colonists retained his Catholic faith, perhaps in secret. The reliquary could have belonged to Archer, whose parents were Catholic, or to the individual who placed it on top of his hexagonal coffin. Provocative etchings on the box offer additional clues. For example, the team identified intentional markings on one side as arrow fletchings—an apt design for a man named Archer.

A well-preserved silver box believed to be a Catholic reliquary resting on top of Capt. Gabriel Archer’s coffin was an unexpected find at the site of the 1608 Anglican church, suggesting that at least one of the colonists retained his Catholic faith, perhaps in secret. In July 2015, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Jamestown Rediscovery announced the identities of Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West, high-status leaders who helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony. (Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution)

A well-preserved silver box believed to be a Catholic reliquary resting on top of Capt. Gabriel Archer’s coffin was an unexpected find at the site of the 1608 Anglican church, suggesting that at least one of the colonists retained his Catholic faith, perhaps in secret.  (Photo by Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution)

Sir Ferdinando Wainman (Weyman)

Sir Ferdinando Wainman (sometimes spelled “Weyman” in historic documents) was born in 1576 and also died in 1610 at about age 34 after arriving at Jamestown with his first cousin and governor of Virginia, Sir Thomas West, also known as Lord De La Warr. Genealogical records indicate that Wainman was the first English knight buried in America. Chemical testing of Wainman’s bones showed he was exposed to more lead in his life than the other three men, suggesting affluence. Lead was present in pewter and glazed wares, items more accessible to the wealthy. The research team also studied the unusual pattern of coffin nails from the grave and determined that Wainman was buried in a uniquely styled anthropomorphic, or human-shaped, wooden coffin. This coffin style was similar to a separate burial in the church that identified as another relative of Lord De La Warr, Capt. William West.

Capt. William West

Capt. William West was born in 1585 and killed in 1610 around the age of 24 during a skirmish with the Powhatan. He was the young uncle of Lord De La Warr and like his relative, Wainman, had high lead levels in his bones. Coffin nails in his grave indicate he, too, was buried in an anthropomorphic coffin.

West’s position at Jamestown was affirmed when the research team discovered highly decayed remnants of a military leader’s sash over the chest area of the skeleton. To protect this delicate artifact, it was removed from the ground within a block of surrounding soil and remains encased in dirt. A micro-CT scan determined it is likely made of silk cloth and adorned with silver bullion fringe and silver spangles.

The Jamestown research team used a micro-CT scan to reveal highly decayed remnants of a military leader’s sash buried in a block of surrounding soil in the grave of Capt. William West. In July 2015, a team of scientists from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Jamestown Rediscovery announced the identities of Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Capt. William West, high-status leaders who helped shape the future of America during the initial phase of the Jamestown colony. Image credit: Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution (Top); Mark L. Riccio / Cornell BRC CT Imaging Facility (Bottom)

The Jamestown research team used a micro-CT scan to reveal highly decayed remnants of a military leader’s sash buried in a block of surrounding soil in the grave of Capt. William West. 
Image credit: Donald E. Hurlbert / Smithsonian Institution (Top); Mark L. Riccio / Cornell BRC CT Imaging Facility (Bottom)

The future of the past

“This is an extraordinary discovery,” said James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery. “Two of the men, Archer and Hunt, were with the first expedition, which established Jamestown in May 1607. And the other two, Wainman and West, arrived with Lord De La Warr and helped save the colony three years later. These men were among the first founders of English America.”

The examination of the skeletal remains and artifacts comes at a critical time in Jamestown’s history, as preservation of these materials is threatened by ongoing changes in the soil and water levels at the site. Jamestown is susceptible to sea-level rise, which some scientists predict could submerge the island by the end of the century.

Smithsonian anthropologist Owsley and his team have worked closely with Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists since 1996, examining skeletal remains in an effort to better understand the lives of the first colonists in the Chesapeake. Continued study of the skeletons will involve genetic testing to better understand the familial relationship between Wainman and West. Further historical and archaeological work is also underway to discover additional information about the four men’s experiences before arriving in Virginia, the significance and sacred meaning of the silver box and the importance of religion in early Jamestown.

Use the 3D viewer below to explore the site

The Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, in collaboration with Jamestown Rediscovery, conducted detailed scans of the burial sites and has archived the digital data, which is available at 3d.si.edu. There, anyone can download or interact with 3-D models of the chancel burial ground, the four graves and Archer’s silver box; look at a collection of high-resolution field photos and videos; or take interactive 3-D tours of the site. 3-D technology is playing an increasingly important role in archaeology and forensic anthropology. An accurate and measurable record of these burials as they lay in the ground not only preserves critical information for research, but also tells the story of North American history in a way never before possible.

Take a virtual flyover tour of the site


Posted: 28 July 2015
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.