Kelso has found fragments of such shells, along with hundreds of spikes that once affixed the plank floors of the gun emplacements. Virginia’s plates later survived a pounding from the Monitor’s guns during their fabled 1862 engagement in the nearby waters of Hampton Roads.
The construction of Fort Pocahontas — primarily by slaves — severely damaged the underground remains of the southern half of James Fort. To create the earthwork, the workers scraped off the top layers of soil at the site, often to a depth of several feet, then piled the dirt high to create a berm. This scraping annihilated, or at least scrambled, the near-surface traces of the 1607 settlement.
(Scott Neville/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Senior staff archaeologists Dan Schmidt, left, and David Givens work at the site of the CIvil War fort.
(Virginia Historical Society, Mss5.1.Sn237.1.Vol3_0234) - A historical illustration shows the Civil War fort on the edge of the Janes river; behind it is a church that was built in 1617.
The slaves’ shovels were slicing into one of the most important sites in American history, where 104 pioneers planted the British flag permanently in the New World in May 1607 and quickly erected a triangular wooden fort. Led for a time by Capt. John Smith, the tiny settlement was decimated by disease and Indian attack, but it rebounded after supply ships arrived in 1610, just as the beleaguered survivors of the original company, giving up hope, had started to sail down the river for home. The marriage of settler John Rolfe to Pocahontas, daughter of the local chief, heralded a more stable period: Anglo-America was safely underway.
In 2010, Kelso discovered the 1608 church inside James Fort where Pocahontas wed Rolfe. The uppermost five feet of its foundations were missing — carted several yards away to build Fort Pocahontas.
In the process of building the Civil War fort, according to an account at that time, the slaves happened upon “curious relics” from the colonial settlement of 250 years earlier, including an iron elbow-piece, or vambrace, belonging to a 17th-century suit of armor. The vambrace was donated to the Virginia Historical Society in the late 19th century; it is now on display at Jamestown’s Archaearium, a new museum. The vambrace is much better preserved than recently excavated armor, which is all reduced to rust due to exposure to moisture over time.
For Kelso, the vambrace is proof that Jamestown should be subjected to intensive archaeology now, as he is doing, not later. “Burials and iron objects are going to be gone in the next 20 years,” he says, as deterioration of buried items inexorably advances.
Since 1994, Kelso and his co-workers have recovered 1.4 million artifacts from James Fort. To fund the work, he relies on grants and donations and some gate receipts from visitors. But, says Straube, “It’s been a struggle to keep going.” In 2010 a partnership was formed with Colonial Williamsburg, and public programming has been increased to lure more paying visitors.
The lumpy, undulating earthen walls of Fort Pocahontas have turned out to be chockablock with small artifacts highlighting everyday life in the 1600s. Among them are a paring knife found last summer and Elizabethan coins that might have jingled in Shakespeare’s pocket before a settler brought them to America. “Over the years we have screened every square inch of a huge volume of soil,” says team member David Givens. “All the best stuff was up in the Confederate fort.”