U.K. Excavation May Rewrite U.S. History
Monday, May 9, 2005
JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Bartholomew Gosnold might have been the founding father of what we now know as the United States, though his name and place in history have been buried in the passage of time and the importance that the swaggering adventurer John Smith attached to himself.
That could change soon.
Two years after stumbling across a grave site holding the bones of a middle-aged man of high rank, archaeologists at the Jamestown settlement are about to learn whether the skeletal remains are Gosnold's. Early next month, they will travel to Britain in search of the answer.
The Church of England has agreed, for the first time in its history, to allow excavation under the floor of a hamlet church where Gosnold's sister is buried, to extract a piece of her remains for DNA analysis. The scientists also might go to a second church, where Gosnold's niece is buried, and descend to the burial vaults to obtain another DNA sample, though permission is pending.
If tests prove that the bones are Gosnold's, his story will be the centerpiece of a new exhibit planned for Jamestown, where Virginia is preparing to mark in 2007 the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America.
"He is the person without which Jamestown would not have happened," said William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. "People talk about American history as if it started with Washington and Jefferson. But Gosnold was our founding grandfather. He's a lost part of American history."
If Gosnold is unknown both in the United States and in England, it is because history belongs to those who shape it.
Proud and boastful, John Smith returned to England and spent the rest of his life talking about his role in helping the small band of settlers survive the rigors of the Virginia colony.
Today, a statue of Smith stands in the center of the old Jamestown fort looking over the James River. There is nothing there to commemorate Gosnold.
Kelso never had heard of Gosnold in 2002, when archaeologists digging a trench in search of the fort's western wall came upon a grave site. The bones were of a 5-foot-5 European man in his mid-thirties who had a robust chest and the beginning stages of arthritis.
Although a coffin had deteriorated, its presence was detected because of numerous iron nails found in the grave. There also was a "leading staff," a spear-tipped ceremonial stick that captains and other luminaries held while reviewing their crews. Clearly, a man of prominence had been buried in the middle of what later was identified as the parade grounds just outside the fort.
Researching the skeleton's identity, Kelso was reading Smith's diaries when a passage leapt out at him. Almost as a parenthetical aside while crowing about his own exploits, Smith wrote that truth be told, "The prime mover of this plantation was Bartholomew Gosnold."