An article in Saturday's Style section incorrectly identified one of the three ships that arrived in Jamestown, Va., in 1607. The third ship was named the Discovery. (Published 10/13/1999)

By the winter of 1609, the third year in Jamestown, it had come to this: One man had killed and salted his wife for dinner and other hungry souls were chewing on the cartilage of poisonous snakes.

A famine had settled on England's first permanent settlement in North America. One colonist marched into the marketplace shaking his hand at the heavens and proclaiming that there was no God. That afternoon his lean body was found torn apart by wolves, which the remaining colonists took as a sign of an angry Almighty.

This is not the picture of America's beginnings in Virginia that most of us learned in school: dashing young English captain John Smith carving out the birthplace of a nation single-handedly, lithesome, brown-skinned Pocahontas saving him from the other, horrible savages. And greedy, dumb nobles lazing on the banks of the James River wondering why they hadn't found any gold yet.

No, another picture is emerging from an extraordinary excavation that is redefining our understanding of Jamestown and rehabilitating the image of those first settlers. Led by William M. Kelso, one of the country's premier archaeologists, the Jamestown Rediscovery Project is building a case for a worldlier, more learned, more industrious and, yes, more gruesome community than schoolbooks or Hollywood have ever conveyed. Think military strategist, not dilettante, scientist, not profiteer, with the odds stacked against the explorers in ways they couldn't possibly have foreseen.

Today, 15 of the country's leading archaeologists and colonial historians will gather here, 10 miles southwest of Williamsburg, to recognize Jamestown as the most exciting dig in North America and discuss a vast expansion of the project.

Warren M. Billings, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, calls the dig "probably the best site there is." Dennis Blanton, director of the Center for Archaeological Research at the College of William and Mary, praises it as "the crown jewel in English colonial archaeology." Carmel Schrire, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, says, "It is giving us a window on 17th-century life that is stunning."

If their comments seem effusive, one needs to recognize that their favorite century has been the invisible chapter in American history. No one knows for sure where the original, 1620 settlement of Plymouth was, or even Plymouth Rock, for that matter. The remains of St. Mary's City, Md., founded in 1634, are just that--artifacts and foundations, nothing standing.

And until Kelso came along, everyone believed that except for a partial church tower, Jamestown had eroded into the river. The last search for the fort where it all started, conducted by the National Park Service in 1955, turned up nothing. Almost everything known about Jamestown prior to this dig came from letters and other documents written by a tiny number of prominent settlers who returned to England.

"There are very few visual anchors to grab people's interest, like there are for instance in 18th-century Williamsburg," says Nicholas Luccketti, senior archaeologist on the current Jamestown project. "Look at the textbooks: You have John Smith and Pocahontas and boom, Williamsburg, George Washington and the Revolutionary War. What happened in between?"

Looking for a Challenge

Six years ago, Kelso, a ruddy, congenial guy, was director of archaeology at Monticello, a man at the top of his game. He had excavated Thomas Jefferson's famous gardens. He had dug up the cabin of Sally Hemings, Jefferson's slave and alleged mistress. ("It was the smallest and meanest of the cabins," he notes with a wry little smile.)

For reasons that defy him even today, he chucked his job on a hunch that he could find the Jamestown fort, the first building of the first English settlement that lasted. On a sunny morning in April 1994, he set off for the riverbank, a solitary figure in Levis, mint-green polo shirt and boat shoes. At a dip in the land about 20 feet from the water, he marked off a 10-foot square with a rope. He set his camera on a tripod outside the square. Then he picked up a shovel, stepped into the square, plunged the shovel into soil and smiled at the camera.

"I felt kinda stupid, a white-haired man in his fifties out there by myself," he now admits. "Most people had told me I was an idiot. By the time I put that shovel in the ground, I was pretty convinced they were right."

Raised in a small town outside Cleveland, Kelso went to Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio on a football scholarship hoping someday, despite his 5-foot-9-inch build, to play in the National Football League. Two seasons as a place kicker with the semiprofessional Savannah Indians persuaded him to seek another pursuit: coaching high school football and teaching history. His growing love for history sent him to graduate studies at William and Mary in Williamsburg.

On his way to William and Mary, he made a detour to James Island. He found the church tower that had been built in 1639 and figured the fort must be close by.

"I walked over to a ranger and asked him where the fort was. The ranger pointed out to the water and said, 'You're too late. It washed away 200 years ago.' "

The missing fort gnawed at him for the next three decades as he acquired his PhD, raised two kids, was named the state's commissioner of archaeology and worked at several big-name sites including Williamsburg and Monticello.

He ran the ongoing excavation at Monticello from 1979 to 1993. He and Ellen, a schoolteacher, turned a 5,000-square-foot mill just outside Charlottesville into their home. He bought a white Mazda Miata convertible.

Finally, in 1993, he approached the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a group of Virginia ladies who own the 22 acres surrounding the old church, and sought permission to excavate.

"He said, 'Peter, I'll start out working for nothing,' " Peter Grover, the association's executive director, remembers. "He had earned his reputation and was looking for the greatest challenge of his life. How could we turn that down?" The Kelsos left Charlottesville for the site with their basset hound, James, and moved into a one-bedroom caretaker's cottage one-fifth the size of their previous home. Kelso took a sizable salary cut (he now makes $42,000 a year). He kept his Miata, but changed the license plate to JMSTN.

In addition to his experience, Kelso's luck was incredible. The square he walked off happened to be on top of a trash pit from the earliest settlement. With the very first shovelful he picked up a clay pipestem resembling what English lords discarded willy-nilly in Tudor England. Sometime later he spotted a pottery shard speckled with a distinct green glaze.

"I thought, 'Slam-dunk,' " he recalls. "I had seen late-16th-century pottery just like that only a few months before at the Museum of London."

Since that day, Kelso's one-man undertaking has expanded tremendously. His budget is $300,000 a year, coming in part from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the state, the National Geographic Society and crime novelist Patricia Cornwell. The paid staff now numbers eight. His small plot has grown to one-third of an acre and he is asking the NEH for money to dig up another third, with his eye on four more acres after that.

He and the staff have uncovered a fort wall, a moat, a dungeon and what appears to be the cellar of a large warehouse built about 1640. They also have unearthed four skeletons: two belonging to a man and a woman who lived inside the early fort.

The most surprising aspect has been the sheer volume of artifacts: the pottery, glass, coins, scientific instruments, jewelry and other evidence of early-17th-century daily life. Usually, says archaeologist Schrire, she and her colleagues must scrape for hours or days before finding anything of consequence. The Jamestown site, which has produced 300,000 artifacts so far, or an average of 150 a day, "is stuffed full of stuff."

Who Shot JR?

Unlike Portugal and Spain, which had already established successful colonies in America in the 1500s, England relied on private investors to finance its overseas expeditions. Sir Walter Raleigh mounted one of the first expeditions, to Roanoke Island, but the colonists there vanished in 1587. Thereafter, a group of investors known as the Virginia Company began raising money for two new ventures, one to Virginia and the other to Maine. (The Maine effort failed after a year in the New World).

Finally, in December 1606, 104 men boarded three ships bound for Virginia: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed and the Delivery. Besides the wealthy men financing the voyage, there were dozens of crew members one rarely hears about: artisans, craftsmen, carpenters and even a few boys. Four and a half months after departing, the ships dropped anchor off a lush green peninsula in the James River.

What has not been clear to scholars before is how well-off and internationally connected the wealthy members of the crew were, according to Beverly Straube, the project's curator. The Rediscovery staff has uncovered fine Chinese wine cups, French wine flasks, German distilling vessels, Spanish olive jars, gold-threaded clothing and brass book hinges--relics, they think, of a library carried over by a clergyman. One of Straube's favorite finds was an ear pick: an engraved silver object in the shape of a mythological sea rhinoceros. Used to scrape the wax out of one's ears, "it would be displayed as a sign of status," she says.

Some of these venturesome capitalists were also keen military strategists, according to Kelso. Historians have wondered why expedition leaders chose to settle on a swampy peninsula plagued with deerflies. Now, Kelso understands why. The fort was positioned so sentries could spot an invading Spanish armada without the invaders easily seeing them.

They had to hope their sentries did the job because their soldiers were young and poorly trained, according to Kelso and others who have studied the period. Kelso and his crew have discovered hundreds of musket balls inside the fort, which makes them wonder whether these younger men, when they weren't killing Powhatan Indians outside the fort, were shooting one another. The first 17th-century skeleton they uncovered, a young male identified as JR 102C, appears to have died from a bullet wound to the knee only months after the first ships arrived. Forensic experts said that from the angle of the bullet, he could not have shot himself. And the native Powhatan Indians didn't use muskets.

"Then who shot JR?" Kelso asks, speculating that JR either was shot for treason or got popped accidentally on a hunting trip.

The settlers' relationship with the Indians was apparently more complicated than previously assumed. The dig has turned up numerous arrowheads, verifying the conventional wisdom that skirmishes with the Powhatan were common. But thousands of copper trimmings also have surfaced, and Straube believes the settlers bartered with the locals for food and peace, sometimes successfully. Jamestown never suffered the severe, sustained attacks by Indians that other early colonies did, she says. That may have been in part a tribute to John Smith's self-described diplomacy, but it also was because of the copper, Straube believes. About the time the first ships arrived, an enemy tribe had blocked the Powhatan's efforts to secure copper to the north, and the new colonists arrived with supplies just in time.

The presence of beakers, distilling jars and tools for making glass and smelting iron suggests the first settlement included fledgling scientists as well as skilled artisans. The craftsmen were probably valued for their ability to help settlers adapt to new surroundings, Kelso says, turning worn military equipment and other items into practical things. A silver helmet pounded into a drinking cup is one example they have found.

"Our objects indicate that Jamestown was a very industrious place," Kelso says. Settlers were constantly rebuilding and adding on to the original fort. Within two years they had built 50 homes; starting with the mud and grass construction common in England and quickly moving to bark, which held up better in Virginia's moist climate. They also were growing small amounts of corn, squash and beans.

Historians have long puzzled over why, in the midst of such busyness, the young colony turned into a deathtrap in the winter of 1609. It was not unusual for early settlers of any colony to fall victim to deadly disease. During August of their first summer, the Jamestown men were dying at a rate of four to five a week. But "the starving time" was even more brutal, according to written accounts, including one from George Percy, an earl's son who was running the colony at the time.

"Some, to satisfy their hunger, have robbed the store, for the which I caused them to be executed," Percy wrote sometime between 1609 and 1612. "Then having fed upon horses and other beasts as long as they lasted, we were glad to make shift with . . . dogs, cats, rats and mice. . . . Some were enforced to search the woods and to feed upon serpents and snakes . . . and to do those things which seem incredible, as to dig up dead corpse out of graves and to eat them, and some have licked up the blood which hath fallen from their weak fellows."

Could Percy have been exaggerating? Kelso thinks not, from what the Jamestown project has turned up: bones of all of the creatures Percy mentions (except humans), scarred by human teeth marks.

Some historians blamed the starving time on the Powhatan. The Indians simply stopped supplying the colonists with food, the historians suggested, hoping to starve them out of existence. Other scholars held that supplies from Britain were meager, the gentlemen running the settlement were too lazy to farm for food, and the remaining rowdies, without wives or children to civilize them, were too undisciplined to be of any use. "Think Animal House fraternity," says James P. Whittenburg, associate history professor at William and Mary.

But the findings at Jamestown inspired others to look for different explanations. An examination of tree rings from 1,000-year-old bald cypresses along the James River showed that between 1606 and 1612, the area suffered its worst drought in 700 years. "Even the best planned and supported colony would have been supremely challenged by the climatic conditions of . . . 1606-1612," wrote David Stahle, a professor at the University of Arkansas who studied the tree rings, in Science magazine.

Suddenly, history started to make sense. In the summer of 1609, 400 new colonists arrived at Jamestown after a wretched voyage, "puking, sickened, wiped out," according to Billings at New Orleans. If food was already scarce, their arrival would have decimated what little was left. A drought would have meant the Powhatan didn't have any food either. Malnutrition would have made all the settlers less resistant to pneumonia, dysentery and other diseases.

A drought also would have meant the James River, its tributaries and the ground water, already very salty, would have become more so. Colonists who drank water--and with wine supplies running out that was probably most of them--could have developed salt poisoning, an illness about which they knew nothing.

By the spring of 1610, the settlers who remained at Jamestown had had enough. They boarded the one vessel that was left and set sail for England.

But 30 hours into their escape, they encountered an incoming British ship commanded by Lord De La Warr, who had been named their first governor. De La Warr issued two orders of consequence. The first was to turn around and sail back to Jamestown. By 1630, they were living in a port city exporting tobacco, lumber, cattle and governed by the country's first representative assembly.

De La Warr's second order--and Kelso thanks his lucky stars every day for this one--was that they sweep the fort clean and start life anew with the fresh supplies he had brought from England. Colonists were dispatched with shovels to dig pits six and seven feet deep. Every empty jar, every animal carcass, every ear pick, would have been tossed in and covered up with clay.

The country's first vaults would then lie dormant for 384 years until a middle-aged man decided to act on a hunch.