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The Fate of Martin's Hundred December 6, 2005
by Sandra Scham

Will one of America's most famous historical archaeology sites be lost to the public?

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The whole character of the colonization enterprise in Virginia changed as more and more settlers arrived. What had started as a frontier venture became a wholesale land grab by increasingly opportunistic Europeans. The peace that had followed the marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe became increasingly precarious as these settlers moved in and their large tobacco plantations began to encroach upon Indian agriculture and hunting. In 1622, after Powhatan's death, his successor Opechancanough ordered attacks on the Virginia settlements during which some 300 colonists were killed.

The site of Martin's Hundred is the preeminent site that, in effect, tells us the "What Went Wrong?" of Indian and colonist relationships. The same massacre that decimated the colony in 1622 reached other settlements as well--but of these only Martin's Hundred has been systematically excavated in such a way as to reveal the story of this pivotal event through archaeology. Founded by the Martin's Hundred Society in 1618 (the word "hundred" described a tract of land on which 100 families could live) the site housed some 140 souls--almost 80 of whom died at the hands of Indians. Graves found at the site attest to the fact that the town at Martin's Hundred was completely destroyed. Some of the most eloquent evidence from Martin's Hundred was that which exposed a particularly bitter irony. The same metal tools that may have cemented, through trade, the relationship between Powhatan's people and the Jamestown settlers were used by the Indians to kill the colonists who made them.

Those wishing to see the colonial site of Martin's Hundred should go to their local library or bookstore rather than Virginia.

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In addition to its significance in providing insight into an Indian uprising that had far-reaching effects on English colonization and settler-Indian relations, Carter's Grove, the plantation that incorporated the earlier settlements of Martin's Hundred, witnessed one of the most significant projects in the development of Historical Archaeology in this country. Described by one Williamsburg archaeologist as "the Babe Ruth of historical archaeology," Ivor Noel Hume has contributed immeasurably to the development of professionalism in the field. He began his excavations at Carter's Grove in 1976 and, as the chief archaeologist for Colonial Williamsburg, oversaw its incorporation into the Williamsburg tourist scene. Among other attractions, the site has an award-winning small museum and an excavated fort that provided Jamestown archaeologist William Kelso with vital information he needed in order to recognize the remains of the James Fort years later (see "A Native Take on Jamestown" in the forthcoming January/February issue of ARCHAEOLOGY).

Despite the incipient pomp and promotion that will attend Jamestown's 400th birthday in 2007, Martin's Hundred, a place that has inspired many professional archaeologists, will not benefit from the expected upsurge in public interest. The site has now been closed to the public by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation because, according to Noel Hume, they believe that keeping it open would be "economically unsound. They said that not enough tickets were sold," he further explains, but this assessment apparently did not take into account the "all-inclusive" admissions to the site sold in the town of Williamsburg.

The original aim of opening the site to the public was to show it as an example of a plantation that served the town. Since that time, however, the Foundation appears to have "streamlined" its approach to the past. Ron Hurst, Vice President of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation says that the organization's mandate is to "protect and preserve the eighteenth century architecture" of the area and that "the remains from earlier periods" are not really of interest to the organization. This may be the real reason why the Foundation has indicated that there are no plans to reopen Carter's Grove.

Although the Foundation denies them, there are rumors that the land may eventually be sold to a private investor. Some important unexcavated sites on the property have already been destroyed as a result of logging operations. Considering that Noel Hume spent many years bringing this history to light he is understandably concerned by this state of affairs. Asked for his remarks on the uncertain future of this important site, he concludes succinctly that, "It's a very tragic story."

Sandra Scham is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and the editor of Near Eastern Archaeology.

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© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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