A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The approaching quadricentennial celebration of of the founding of Jamestown in 2007 has spurred an ambitious project known as the Jamestown Archaeological Assessment, sponsored by the National Park Service (NPS) in cooperation with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the College of William and Mary. Directed by Cary Carson and Marley Brown of Colonial Williamsburg, the assessment is focusing on the 1,500-acre portion of Jamestown Island owned and administered by the NPS. Reevaluation of excavated material coupled with painstaking historical research, careful and limited excavation in the town site, an extensive survey of the rest of the island, environmental studies, and geophysical prospecting has already given us a better understanding of the history of the island. A separate project, sponsored by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and directed by William M. Kelso, has uncovered evidence for the 1607 James Fort.
The new survey of the island, carried out by College of William and Mary archaeologists in 1994 and 1995, has located 58 sites representing 10,500 years of human activity on the island. While evidence of Paleoindian activity is relatively rare in eastern Virginia, the recovery of two fluted points on the island indicate it was used during the late Pleistocene (9500-8000 B.C.). At that time, the James River, now two miles wide, was a mere stream, and the island a low-lying peninsula with broad upland terraces and springs. Survey results indicate that Native American use of the island increased throughout the Archaic period (7000-2000 B.C.), when subsistence ranged from seasonal hunting to an increased reliance on shellfish and other marine resources, but slowly declined from the Middle Woodland (1000 B.C.-A.D. 700) to the Late Woodland (1000-1500), into the Protohistoric or Contact period (sixteenth century). As sea level rose and freshwater turned brackish, livable areas became scarce. By the time the English arrived, the island was used only seasonally by the native population, who were by then living in permanent villages in more salubrious locations on the mainland.
At the 13-acre Jamestown town site, the assessment has employed geophysical prospecting to identify remains below the surface. Ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry, and soil resistivity and conductivity meters were all tested to determine the most effective and efficient remote-sensing instrument for Jamestown. Ground-penetrating radar and magnetometry worked well and in one case located a cluster of brick kilns in a previously unexplored field. Excavations have been designed to address specific research questions concerning the preservation of botanical remains, the reanalysis of particular buildings, and the surveying of documented activity areas. Since the early excavations at Jamestown, new methods have been developed to recover even the smallest of artifacts and plant and animal remains. Samples of backfilled soil have been reexcavated, screened, and analyzed to determine what types and quantities of such material were missed during the original investigations, in the 1930s by Jean C. Harrington, and in the 1950s by John L. Cotter.
"Only a fraction of the enormous archaeological potential of Jamestown has been realized," lamented Harrington in 1984. The approach of the Jamestown Archaeological Assessment project has been to evaluate that potential, in order to guide future investigations not only of the seventeenth-century remains, a mere fraction of cultural time on the island, but of its entire 10,500-year record of human history. Although heavily excavated, the seventeenth-century town site continues to reveal tantalizing information that augments, challenges, and alters our understanding of early settlement and town development in the Chesapeake area. As the quadricentennial approaches, the symbolic appeal of Jamestown will continue to lure scholars and students of American culture. A sound framework and footing, built by interdisciplinary teamwork, is now in place that will support, broaden, and contextualize future research at the site.
Audrey J. Horning is a research fellow in the department of archaeological research at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.