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Conversation: Lost Voices of Jamestown Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007

Talking about artifacts that will help reshape the story of the early colonists

In May 1607, English colonists sent by the Virginia Company landed at Jamestown Island and began building a fort to protect against Indian attack. Archaeologist Beverly ("Bly") Straube co-authored a study for the National Park Service that led directly to the discovery of James Fort in 1994. This spring Queen Elizabeth will visit Jamestown to celebrate its 400th anniversary. In anticipation of her arrival, Straube spoke with Archaeology about the wealth of finds unearthed at the site.

(Michael Lavin, APVA Preservation)

Why is the Jamestown Rediscovery project important? Don't we have ample historical accounts of the early colony by John Smith and others?
Archaeology opens a window on things that the colonists didn't think were worth recording--for example, the religious climate at Jamestown, how the colonists related to the Indians, their efforts to return a profit to the London investors, and their military preparedness and ability to live off the land. Our work is exploding the traditional myth of Jamestown as a failure, filled with lazy self-serving gentlemen. The plentiful evidence we've found for industrial activity, including glassmaking, metallurgy, woodworking, and other crafts, argues otherwise.

Last summer, the team dug a well that dates to around 1611. What were the most exciting finds?
Besides well-preserved organic materials like shoe leather, nuts, and seeds, we also found mussel shell beads--the type made by Indians. They have rough edges and appear unfinished. Then we found the stone drill in the well that was used to make the central holes in the beads. This indicates that an Indian was crafting shell beads in James Fort. It's one of many clues that there were Indians living among the colonists in the early years.

Could you tie any of the finds from the well to a particular colonist or historical incident?
Right at the bottom was an amazing find: the iron blade of a halberd, or battle-ax, decorated with griffin heads, the family crest of Lord de la Warr, the colony's first governor. De la Warr arrived at Jamestown in June 1610 with a retinue of 50 halberdiers as his bodyguards. He left Virginia in ill health less than a year later, leaving the halberd behind, but somebody found a good use for it! They hammered it into a hook to fish something valuable out of the well, but in the process lost the halberd. We found that valuable object in the very bottom of the well--a Scottish pistol, still loaded with two bullets!

Will you be showing off James-town's relics to the Queen during her coming visit?
Oh, I really hope so. We archaeologists are on the fringes of all the planning so we don't know who will be permitted to be present. But I am reestablishing my British citizenship (both my parents are English) in honor of the occasion. It is something that I have wanted to do for ages and the moment seems right.

What's it been like to work on a project that's so much in the public eye?
We made it a point from the beginning to involve the public in our "moments of discovery." We've allowed visitors to get up close to the ropes and watch the archaeologists work and see the dirt being washed off artifacts for the first time in 400 years.

What has given you the most satisfaction about your contribution to the project?
The nearly one million artifacts we've excavated have a lot to say if only we can understand their language. I hope I've been somewhat successful in recovering these "lost voices" of Jamestown, enabling the artifacts to tell their stories of this key episode in the founding of our nation.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America