MARTIN'S HUNDRED is a fascinating and complex archeological detective story, the story of the discovery and excavation of a long-forgotten colonial hamlet in Virginia. The tragic history of the Martin's Hundred settlement has long been known, but the location of the village was forgotten until Colonial Williamsburg archeologists found and excavated it in the 1970s.
Late in 1618, 220 settlers left England to populate the 20,000-acre Martin's Hundred tract by the James River in Virginia. The settlement was to consist of a palisaded fort and the nucleus of a fledgling town named Wolstenholme Towne. The tiny hamlet struggled along for three years. In March 1622 the local Indians attacked the James River settlement without warning and massacred nearly 350 people. Half the population of Martin's Hundred was killed or taken hostage, the houses and fort set afire. The survivors rebuilt the village and held on for a few more years. Eventually Martin's Hundred was abandoned and virtually forgotten for 350 years.
Ivor Noel Hume, director of Colonial Williamsburg's archeological research program, describes the excavation of Martin's Hundred. His book offers a unique insight into the esoteric and demanding world of historical archeology. He admits to enjoying the thrill of the archeological hunt, the "adrenalin flowing until the moment of the kill," an essential quality for any serious historical archeologist. His impressive detective skills were exercised to the full at Martin's Hundred.
The excavation alone presented formidable difficulties. The site was found during a survey of the Carter's Grove plantation near Williamsburg in the early 1970s. Centuries of deep plowing had churned over the fertile soil of the estate and displaced surviving artifacts. So the archeologists used a mechanical grader to expose the clay subsoil where signs of colonial postholes and rubbish pits might be found. They uncovered not an imposing town, but a hamlet of lightly constructed, wattle and daub houses. They excavated fence posts and graves, the remains of a quadrilateral fort, a company compound, and a large barn, 45 by 29 feet. These structures were pieced together by surveying and excavating tell-tale black smudges in the subsoil, all that remained of the posts that once supported the buildings. This type of archeology is a demanding exercise in logical reasoning and meticulous excavation, a form of research that requires not only superb digging skills, but a detailed understanding of how ancient houses and fences were built. It was here that historical detective work came into play. An obscure New York document enabled comparison of a mysterious, cellar-like structure at Martin's Hundred to deep cellar pits used by early colonists to keep them warm and dry in the winter. The research into 17th-century fencing surrounding the village structures involved sources as esoteric as needlework, woodcuts, and country almanacs, all this over and above the difficulties of tracing practically invisible post marks in the ground.
Martin's Hundred is a striking reminder of how sheer persistence can pay off in archeology. The chances, for example, of identifying the owner of one of the excavated houses might seem remote indeed. The fill of the cellar hole found in "Site A" yielded three short strings of gold and silver wire and a gold paint once used to decorate clothing. These few, tantalizing clues led Noel Hume to a local regulation of 1622 that permitted only heads of hundreds to wear "gold in their cloaths." He then identified one William Harwood, the head of Martin's Hundred, as one of the signatories of the resolution, and thus the owner of the house. This was tenuous evidence at best, but perhaps supported by the find of a 63/4-pound cannonball. This may have been Harwood's property, for he was listed in the 1625 census as the only resident of the hundred possessing "a peece of Ordnance."
Martin's Hundred yielded dozens of delicate and frequently badly preserved 17th-century artifacts. These included two tinned copper farthings minted in 1613, two complete visored helmets, tobacco pipes, and shards of stoneware and delftware. The reconstruction of these precious finds was but the beginning. Dating and interpreting them led Noel Hume and his colleagues to the most arcane and obscure historical sources, to clues as far afield as Western Australia and Ireland. The book tells of rows of nails in Martin's Hundred graves that resulted in a lengthy search for gabled coffin lids. This culminated in the opening of an aristocratic burial vault in England. We follow the archeologists to obscure Dutch paintings of scruffy people in less than elegant surroundings where analogies for Martin's Hundred artifacts were to be found. The book is a treasure trove of such sleuthing. We learn about 17th-century stills, a new spectrographic technique for studying mnineral elements in pottery clays, and visit the armory at Graz, Austria, where the author found parallels to a musket scourer--more than 800 of them.
There were burials, too, some of them deposited in haste, including one victim whose features were reconstructed using a technique developed for identifying modern homicide victims. The archeologists even called on a pathologist who had studied a recent murder in England to identify the gash in a Martin's Hundred skull as being consistent with that from a spade. The skeleton of a woman about 40 years old was found in a rubbish pit, her skull strapped with a narrow iron band that had the diggers at a loss. Experts identified this as a hair band, which had been wrenched aside, perhaps when she was scalped and left for dead by the Indians. She crawled away and huddled in a pit, where she froze to death.
Martin's Hundred is much more than an engrossing account of a complex and demanding excavation, it is a tour de force of sophisticated team research. The excavation techniques are meticulous, the applications of science to the past both ingenious and appropriate. Experts on everything from human pathology to Civil War fortification are marshalled and deployed. Above all, the author shows how modern archeological research is a cumulative, logical process with its share of insights, triumphs, and disappointments. The clear descriptions of dating problems, post hole excavation, and artifact analysis are models of their kind. Small wonder the Martin's Hundred excavations have dramatically altered our understanding of early American agriculture and warfare, and of tragic initial contacts between Europeans and Indians in colonial times. No one interested in archeology, early America, or detective investigtions should miss this fascinating volume. Noel Hume's well illustrated and elegant foray into the past is, quite simply, one of the best books on American archaeology yet written.