At Historic Jamestowne, Remains of the Day

Friday, April 27, 2007

No trip to Jamestown would be complete without a visit to the actual remains of the original James Fort, located on a 1,500-acre island park adjacent to the Jamestown Settlement reconstruction. Now partially swamped by the James River at one corner, the vestiges of the triangular fort are the heart of Historic Jamestowne, which has more to set it apart from its neighbor than the addition of an old-timey "e."

Jointly administered by the National Park Service and the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, Historic Jamestowne features (along with such magnets for archaeology buffs as the ruins of a 17th-century church tower) a handsome, high-tech new museum dedicated to the display and interpretation of some of the million-plus artifacts that have been unearthed since the fort was uncovered in 1994.

Known, somewhat unpronounceably, as the Archaearium, the facility opened last year atop the foundation of the last statehouse in Jamestown. Sections of elevated glass flooring allow visitors to not only tread over but to look down on the preserved remnants of that building, which was destroyed by fire in 1698 before the Virginia capital moved to Williamsburg. Elsewhere, interactive binoculars called "virtual viewers" offer panoramic vistas of how the surrounding grounds might have looked to someone standing on that spot 400 years ago.

But the real time travel is effected through displays of weapon and armor, everyday tools and utensils, medical instruments, housewares, coins, musical instruments, games and the preserved remains of food unearthed by the ongoing Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project.

One especially haunting corner of the building is devoted to human skeletal remains and the facial reconstructions of three anonymous early settlers. One of two intact skeletons is thought to belong to Bartholomew Gosnold, the captain of the Godspeed, one of the three ships that brought the first colonists over. The other skeleton, whimsically dubbed J.R., still boasts a lead ball imbedded in its leg, indicating a premature death by gunshot.

Together with the rest of the Archaearium's fascinating finds, it's a reminder of how America's earliest settlers lived, worked, played -- and died -- while building this country.

-- Michael O'Sullivan

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