Down a Well, Fishing for Historical Clues

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Here's how this might have happened:

One day, about 400 years ago, a resident of Jamestown went to the well at the north end of the fort to draw water. He was careless and dropped his snazzy, brass-barrel, fully loaded Scottish pistol. Splash.

He fetched a halberd -- a staff tipped with an ax head -- and bent the point into a hook. He lowered the halberd into the well to fish out the pistol, but dropped the halberd in, too.

Then he got a boarding pike -- a metal-tipped spear -- and bent that into a hook. But, by a toad's toes, the pike also fell in. Wisely, he gave up. And there, at the bottom of the 15-foot-deep well, the pistol, pike and halberd lay for almost four centuries.

Until last summer.

Danny Schmidt, a senior staff archaeologist with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, says this was one scenario pondered after the square, oak-lined well was discovered in late 2005.

The well, the older of two found at the site, had been so forgotten that a long-vanished house and chimney had been built on top of it.

For months, archaeologists with the association, which owns the fort site, burrowed into the well and back in time. Through the fireplace bricks. Through the rubbish and fill that choked the well when it was abandoned.

Finally, they reached the water table where the ancient artifacts lay, mostly intact, as if they had been dropped yesterday.

Schmidt says experts can never be sure, but the pike and halberd, bearing an English lord's coat of arms, certainly seem to have been altered to pull something out of the well.

"Down there next to all of that was the Scottish pistol," he says. And they were retrieved in reverse order: pike, halberd, pistol.

"For us, it's just goosebumps," he says. "We're thrilled. You feel like you're stepping back in time. Those objects are in mint condition. They're like they were the day they went in."

But there's one thing that remains perplexing.

"I don't understand," Schmidt admits, "why they didn't drop down a ladder and just climb in."

-- Michael E. Ruane

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