Archaeologists have uncovered remains of four of the earliest leaders of the English colony that would become America, buried for more than 400 years near the altar of America’s first Protestant church in Jamestown, Virginia.
The four burial sites are in the earthen floor of what was Jamestown’s historic Anglican church from 1608, a team of scientists and historians announced Tuesday. The site is the same church where Pocahontas famously married Englishman John Rolfe, leading to peace between the Powhatan Indians and colonists at the first permanent English settlement in America.
Beyond the human remains, archaeologists also found artifacts buried with the colonial leaders, including a mysterious container for holy relics.
The Jamestown Rediscovery archaeology team revealed its find at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington. The museum is helping to identify those buried in the church. The burials were uncovered in 2013, but the scientific team wanted to identify its findings with some certainty before announcing the discovery.
Archaeologists have been studying the site since 1994, when the original James Fort — long thought to be lost and submerged in the James River — was rediscovered. The church site was mostly untouched and had not been excavated for more than a century until it was found in 2010.
The team identified the remains of the Reverend Robert Hunt, the first Anglican minister in Jamestown; Capt. Gabriel Archer, an enemy of onetime colony leader John Smith; Sir Ferdinando Wainman, probably the first knight buried in America; and Captain William West, who died fighting the Powhatan Indians. The three other men probably died after brief illnesses. They were buried between 1608 and 1610.
“What we have discovered here in the earliest English church in America are four of the first leaders of America,” said historian James Horn, who is president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “There’s nothing like it anywhere else in this country.”
While the individuals buried at Jamestown were not royalty, they were considered pivotal figures in the early colony. Horn compared the find to the 2012 discovery of the lost grave of King Richard III in England.
Perhaps just as interesting as the newly discovered human remains are some of the artifacts buried with the bodies. Burial items were rare in English culture at the time, archaeologists said.
In the remnants of Archer’s coffin, archaeologists found a captain’s leading staff, a symbol of Archer’s military status. Historical records indicate Archer helped lead some of the earliest expeditions to Jamestown. He died at the age of 34 during a six-month period known as the “starving time,” when many perished due to disease, starvation and battles with Indians.
Mysteriously, a small silver box resting atop Archer’s coffin is probably a Catholic reliquary containing bone fragments and a container for holy water. Archer’s parents were Catholic, a religion that became illegal in Protestant England.
“It was a real kind of aha moment for a lot of us,” said William Kelso, Jamestown’s director of archaeology. “It was ‘Oh, religion was a big deal here,’ and that’s often overlooked. Everyone thinks that people came to Jamestown to find gold and go home and live happily ever after.”
But the Church of England had a strong role in the creation of an English America, with the Protestant church acting as a bulwark against Spain’s Catholic colonies to the south, Horn said.
In West’s burial plot, archaeologists found remnants of the military leader’s silver-edged sash in a block of soil.
Artifacts from the burials will go on display within weeks at Historic Jamestowne.
“The things that we look at and can read from the bones are simply details that you’re not going to find in the history books,” said Douglas Owsley, a scientist at the Smithsonian. “These are men that you might not know their name. But these are men that were critical to who we are in terms of America today.”