The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Colonial Jamestown, assailed by climate change, is facing disaster

Chronic flooding lands 400-year-old Virginia site on the endangered list

Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in North America, is seen last month, sandwiched between the James River and a swamp. (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

JAMESTOWN, Va. — The dig site where archaeologist Sean Romo has just found the ancient fragment of armor is surrounded by a double layer of green sandbags to keep out water.

A dig site nearby is covered by a grate where a tarp can be quickly spread if it starts to rain.

And out in the James River, barges filled with stone are waiting to bolster the century-old concrete sea wall that is failing under the relentless pressure of the river.

The 400-year-old colonial site here is losing its battle with climate change, experts say, and Wednesday the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed it on a list of the country’s most endangered historical places.

“Jamestown is a world-class archaeological site and a place of national and international significance,” said James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, the nonprofit that conducts archaeology and cares for the original settlement site. (The trust listing does not include the adjacent National Park Service Jamestown location.)

The threat to the site of one of the nation’s “very first cultural hubs … brings home the challenges that climate change pose to our entire society,” he said.

Katherine Malone-France, chief preservation officer for the trust, said, “You’ve got resources there underwater, that are staying underwater.”

“Jamestown demonstrates that the threats to our cultural resources from a changing climate are incredibly urgent,” she said. “We have a five-year window to make an impact. … This isn’t something that can wait 10 or 15 years.”

“This is our collective heritage,” she said Monday.

The trust was chartered by Congress in 1949, and for the last 35 years it has issued a list of 11 historical sites endangered by things such as development, neglect, decay and exposure to weather.

Another spot struggling with climate change on this year’s list is Houston’s Olivewood Cemetery, Malone-France said.

It is a 140-year-old African American burial ground with more than 4,000 graves. It suffers from chronic erosion, and after a 2017 hurricane was under 10 feet of water.

Jamestown, in 1607, became the place of the first permanent English settlement in what would become the United States. The earth here holds the bones of hundreds of the early colonists and the artifacts that are clues to their lives.

It is also the place where, in 1619, the first enslaved Africans arrived, and where generations of Native Americans had already lived for centuries.

It is an archaeological “trifecta,” as one expert put it.

Queen Elizabeth II of Britain has visited. So have presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and George W. Bush, Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and an array of political and public figures.

In recent years there have been spectacular discoveries, including the location of the colony’s “lost” fort, the remains of colonial VIPs and evidence that the first settlers, facing starvation, may have resorted to cannibalism.

But the location is on a low-lying tidewater island menaced by the river on one side, a swamp on the other and what the archaeologists believe are increasingly frequent deluges of rain caused by climate change.

Drainage systems date back to the 1950s, said Michael Lavin, director of collections and conservation for Jamestown Rediscovery. And archaeologists have had to use sump pumps to empty water-filled excavations.

Part of the problem “is of course sea level rise,” archaeologist Mary Anna R. Hartley said one day last week as she stood by a sandbagged excavation site that probably dates to about 1608.

“Some of it is groundwater coming up,” she said. “The other thing is these tremendous rain events we’re getting, I’d say, in the last 12 to 15 years. We’ll get between 4 and 10 inches of rain all at once. And there are multiple instances and events like that.”

She said the archaeologists keep their smartphones tuned to weather reports and one eye on the sky over the mile-wide river. “When you see a storm directly across, it’s almost too late,” she said. “You better hurry up and close what you can.”

“Our defenses are always the sandbags,” she said.

“And then we have this really high-quality plastic that we lay down … to catch the water and pump it off or bail it off the sites,” she said.

“If you get that much rain that fast, it’s pretty much like a hurricane or a nor’easter,” she said. “And almost on a weekly basis, we’ll get one of those rain events. … The inundation is outpacing us.”

Already the small excavation has yielded pieces of “brigandine” armor, and Native American projectile points that date back centuries. Both can be destroyed or altered by water.

Fragile layers of sediment that archaeologists use to read a site can be washed away. And human bones exposed to water can become like cardboard, one expert said.

None of Jamestown’s high-status burials seem threatened so far because they are on higher ground in or around the main church site.

But at least one burial, and perhaps many more, are on lower ground and in the path of an encroaching swamp, said Romo, one of the archaeologists.

He said some areas where there may be artifacts already have been engulfed by the swamp, and others are in danger of that.

“The subtleties of the past can easily be washed away,” he said.

Last week, as archaeologists scraped away dirt in the sandbagged pit, several construction barges were anchored in the river awaiting government permission to start shoring up the sea wall that has protected Jamestown for over 100 years.

Although the sea wall is made of huge blocks of concrete, it has been battered by the river for decades and now is being undermined by water seepage from the land.

“If the blocks start falling out … at some point the whole thing is going to drop out, and you’re going to lose the integrity of the sea wall,” Lavin, the collections director, said last week.

Jamestown Rediscovery and its nonprofit affiliate Preservation Virginia have raised more than $2 million for the project to bolster the sea wall with tons of granite “armor” stone, he said.

Each stone weighs between 500 and 1,500 pounds, and they will be placed against the existing concrete blocks of the wall.

R. Neville Reynolds, managing director of VHB, the Williamsburg engineering firm doing the work, said the project could begin in a week and would take about two months to finish.

But Jamestown needs more than just a reinforced sea wall, Lavin said. The landscape needs to be adjusted to cope with the continuing impact of climate change.

Roads should be raised. A modern drainage system needs to be created. And a special flood berm needs to be built on the site.

Lavin said the cost will be in the “tens of millions” of dollars. And time is critical.

“We want to raise this flag of awareness and urgency that one of America’s premier historic, and prehistoric, sites is at risk,” he said.

Loading...