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U.K. Excavation May Rewrite U.S. History
Gosnold was a well-connected Englishman. A descendant of Francis Bacon's, he first crossed the Atlantic in 1602 and landed off the coast of what is now Maine. On that trip, he discovered Cape Cod, named Martha's Vineyard after his daughter and gave his sister's name to Elizabeth Island, where the town of Gosnold now is.
He returned to England, only to sail again in December 1606 as vice admiral aboard the ship Godspeed. It was Gosnold who made plans, secured financing and ordered provisions. But over his objections, the crew disembarked and settled in a secluded swamp along the James River.
Three months later, after overseeing the building of a fort in just 19 days, Gosnold was dead at age 37. It was recorded that he suffered a three-week illness and that when he was buried, all the ordnance in the fort was fired in his honor.
Kelso and his staff narrowed the possible identity of the buried man to Gosnold and two others: Capt. Gabriel Archer, the colony's first secretary, and Sir Fernando Wehnman, master of the fort's ordnance. Archer and Wehnman died in 1610, three years after Gosnold did.
The colonists had to defy orders from England not to bury anyone outside the fort in a false show of strength to the Indians. That is why Kelso has intuited that it must be Gosnold.
"Gosnold was buried with great ceremony, with all the guns going off," he said. "They were saying: 'Maybe we lost our leader, but we're fine.' "
Proving the grave is Gosnold's is another matter. Researchers were unable to trace a direct matriarchal line of Gosnold's descendants to conduct mitochondrial DNA tests. But they did find the presumed burial site of his sister, Elizabeth Tilney. According to her will, she lies next to her husband at the medieval Shelley All Saints church near her home in Suffolk.
When Kelso met a neighbor who is one of six members of the church, he broached the subject of doing DNA tests on her remains.
The request had to go through not only the church members, but also the governing Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich, which held a public meeting on the matter and consulted a lawyer. There was no opposition, said Nick Clarke, a spokesman for the diocese. The permission to excavate was a first.
"There have been a couple of attempts before to extract DNA from graves in British churches," Clarke said. "Both have been refused at the first stage because the answer to the questions of how they were going to do it and why were not sufficiently thought through. What makes this unique is the argument put forward by Jamestown that there is a good, strong, solid educational reason, and it is being done with a sensible, thoughtful methodology."
British archaeologists will conduct the excavation, scheduled for June 13. Jamestown archaeologists, diocesan officials and members of the parish will observe. The plan is to dislodge the stone atop the grave, remove the dirt and see whether a woman who died in her 70s is buried alongside a man.
The remains will not be removed. Instead, the scientists will take a one-inch wedge from the bones or a tooth from which the DNA can be extracted.
If permission is granted, they will then go on to St. Peter and St. Mary Church in the town of Stowmarket to collect DNA from the burial vault where Katherine Blackerby, Gosnold's niece, is interred.
Clarke, the diocesan spokesman, said the church believes the project could attract more tourists to the town where Gosnold lived in England and to the swampy shore where he died.
"We anticipate an economic spinoff, particularly in and around Suffolk where Gosnold operated and lived," Clarke said. "We hope raising his profile will underline his importance both in America and on this side of the Atlantic."
Until then, the bones of the man presumed to be Bartholomew Gosnold lie in a glass case in a Jamestown laboratory. An English-born lab technician brought a British flag from home and has draped it over the coffin-shaped case in a show of respect.