Settlers' Remains Tell Tales of Harsh, Short Lives

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 9, 2007

The boy was probably about 15, and some time during the long sea voyage to Jamestown 400 years ago, he broke off one of his lower front teeth. Infection set in and spread to his chin, where it destroyed a section of bone the size of a half-dollar.

He must have been unimaginably miserable -- but much more agony was in store. He later broke his collarbone and got shot with an arrow that lodged near his left knee, and he died. He was dumped in a narrow grave, where he lay in a crooked position for almost four centuries.

Poor lad. A fine welcome to America.

But now, as his broken tooth, damaged chin and fractured collarbone rest in a laboratory in the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, the boy is telling scientists the story of his harrowing existence in early Jamestown, a place where life was often cut short by disease or violence.

The boy's remains are among those of nearly 100 early Jamestown residents that archaeologists have unearthed in recent years and that anthropologists have been scrutinizing for clues to life there.

Scientists have also unearthed thousands of artifacts the colonists left behind: pistols, daggers and armor; pipe stems, pottery and copper jewelry; and farming, medical and carpentry tools.

Many of the discoveries are on display at Jamestown's Archaearium, a museum at the historic site run by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, and the National Park Service's new visitor center, a short walk away.

But most of the attention has been on the human remains and on what they, and the burials, might reveal about how the early colonists lived and died.

Some finds have been spectacular. In September 1996, archaeologists working at the site of Jamestown's first fort stumbled upon the grave of a man, about 20, who appeared to have been buried in a hexagonal wooden coffin.

Tests showed he was probably born in Virginia and was alive around 1620. The striking thing was that he had suffered a severe gunshot wound that had virtually torn off his lower right leg and left behind a large round bullet and 21 pieces of buckshot.

He was given the archaeological designation "JR102C." But who was he? And how was he killed? Could he have been an Indian, shot in a skirmish with colonists? Unlikely, experts say: A slain Indian probably would not have been buried at such expense.

How was he killed? Did he shoot himself? Also unlikely. Ballistics tests showed that he was probably shot from at least 15 feet away, said William M. Kelso, who has directed archaeology at Jamestown for 13 years.

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