Archaeologists and anthropologists uncover graves inside the church within the fort at Historic Jamestowne. They are searching for the graves of people who were important to the establishment and survival of the early colony. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

The ancient thigh bone was that of a robust man, a chap in his 40s, with wear and tear in his joints and a hip socket that showed he had been a horseman and a man of status.

Could these be the remains of the long-lost lord — the savior of the English colony here, the aristocrat who died at sea, and whose body was likely carried to Virginia in a cask of wine?

Was this Thomas West, better known as Lord De La Warr, whose name — Americanized to Delaware — has left its imprint on the national landscape?

“I’m not sure,” Kari Bruwelheide, a Smithsonian Institution anthropologist, said as she held the limb under the fluorescent lights at a special laboratory here.

But archaeologists at the Jamestown Rediscovery project and anthropologists from the Smithsonian are embarked on an effort to see if they can find the famous lord, who gave his name to a state, a river, a bay and counties and municipalities around the country.

The project is seeking to locate Jamestown notables who were buried, and sometimes unearthed and reburied, inside the small churches that occupied the site over four centuries.

John Rolfe, who married Pocahontas, the famous daughter of a Native American chieftain, may be buried there. So, too, George Yeardley, who served as an early governor of Colonial Virginia, said William M. Kelso, chief archaeologist of Jamestown Rediscovery.

Experts also are seeking to better understand the site where the first representative assembly in the Western Hemisphere met on July 30, 1619. Jamestown, established in 1607, was the first permanent English settlement in North America.

The tasks are daunting.

Begrimed archaeologists, working under special lights, are using trowels and brushes to sift through the dirt and bones in deep excavations inside the structure of the current church, which dates to 1906.

Over the years, numerous “high-status” Jamestown figures were buried within the church, a venue reserved for the settlement’s elite, according to Kelso and James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery.

But there is little record of who was buried where and when, and the archaeologists are trying to sort through the jumble of what they are finding.

“There may be three or four layers of burials,” Horn said.

Tourists watch as archaeologists investigate graves that have been found beneath the floor of the Jamestown church. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

The job is further complicated by archaeology conducted at the site in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The earlier archaeologists left a crude time capsule — a metal box with what appeared to be a letter inside. The now-rusted box was found Tuesday, but the paper had deteriorated and was unreadable.

And those archaeologists were not experts. They unearthed some remains and reburied them haphazardly, and errant shovel strokes left cut marks in some of the bones.

“There are so many graves cutting through graves, cutting through graves, cutting through graves,” Kelso said. “To sort it out archaeologically is much more complicated than any of us” realized.

“I knew it would be a challenge,” he said. “I never thought it would be this challenging.”

The work began months ago and could extend into next summer.

The theory is that Lord De La Warr, who died in 1618, was the first person buried in what was then a brand-new church. So his remains could be at the very bottom of the grave layers, Kelso said.

The lord was in his 40s when he died, and the anthropologists can often deduce the age of bones through examination.

The archaeologists will look for any remnants or outline of a specially shaped “anthropoid” coffin that would have been accorded an aristocrat. Other such coffins have been found at Jamestown.

And scientific tests can be conducted on the bones.

Relatives of De La Warr have been found at Jamestown. The Smithsonian has been trying to glean DNA from their bones. If the effort is successful, that DNA could be compared with DNA taken from the lord’s bones.

“It would be a whole litany of evidence that would add up,” Kelso said.

Jamestown has given up secrets in the past.

In the mid-1990s, Kelso found the outline of the settlers’ original fort, which was thought to have been consumed by the adjacent James River years before. (In 2007, he escorted Queen Elizabeth II on a tour of the site.)

A re-creation of a 14-year-old girl's skull rests on a lab table at Historic Jamestowne. The girl died during a period of starvation at the colony, and her body was subjected to post-mortem cannibalism by surviving colonists. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

Two years ago, Jamestown Rediscovery and the Smithsonian announced the discovery of four graves inside the fort, and the probable identities of the VIP occupants — including De La Warr’s young nephew, who had been killed fighting Indians.

It was “the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” Horn said at the time.

Narrowest survival

By early 1610, Jamestown, grandly named for Britain's King James I three years before, was at the point of collapse. Its structures were crumbling from neglect. The colonists were starving and may have resorted to cannibalism. And they were constantly menaced by Indians angry at their presence.

That spring, the defeated settlers packed up, abandoned the site and sailed down the James River, bound for England. Their enterprise had been a disaster. Of the 300 or so who had been there the previous fall, about 60 emaciated survivors remained.

But before they headed out to sea, they encountered an expedition, mounted by De La Warr, with dozens of new colonists. He turned the settlers around and headed back to Jamestown, where he had his commission as governor read aloud.

Lord De La Warr is a largely forgotten figure in Virginia history.

A wealthy English noble, he was knighted after fighting rebels in Ireland in 1599, according to the Encyclopedia of Virginia.

In 1602, he succeeded to the British barony of De La Warr. And in 1606, he was appointed to the council that oversaw the Virginia Company of London and, later, its tiny overseas colony.

He invested heavily in the company. Kelso calls him a “venture capitalist.” In 1610, the company named him governor and captain general of Virginia for life, according to the encyclopedia. He was 32.

Landing at Jamestown on June 10, he found it "a very noisome and unwholesome place occasioned much by the mortality and idleness of our own people," he wrote in a letter, according to Edward Wright Haile's "Jamestown Narratives."

“So the next day, I set the sailors awork to unlade the ships and the landmen some to cleanse the town some to make coal for our forges [and] . . . sent fishermen out to provide fish for our men,” he wrote.

He also addressed the settlers.

“I delivered some few words . . . laying some blames upon them for many vanities and their idleness, earnestly wishing that I might no more find it so lest I be compelled to draw the sword in justice,” he wrote in a separate report to the company.

He reassured the colonists that he had brought food. He appointed subordinates, occupied a green velvet chair in the church, and began to enforce a strict military code of conduct.

The church at Jamestown, where the search for graves goes on. It was built over earlier churches. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

The “Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall” may be the earliest known English-language body of law in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Virginia encyclopedia.

The code was harsh. Colonists could be executed for robbery, blasphemy or criticizing the company. Punishment for cursing or disparaging a clergyman was having a bodkin — a large needle — driven through the tongue.

Meanwhile, outside the settlement, tension with Indians soon erupted into war. De La Warr at one point ordered the execution of a captured Indian queen, whose children his men had already murdered.

Irritated that she had been spared, he wanted her burned to death, but relented and allowed her to be put to the sword.

Soon, his health began to fail. He suffered from fevers, dysentery and the vitamin-deficiency disease scurvy. As a result, he left Virginia and by June 1611 was home in England.

He was determined to go back, though. Virginia “is wonderfull fertile and very rich,” he told the company, with “a goodly River called Patomack, upon the borders whereof there are grown the goodliest Trees.”

In 1618, De La Warr sailed again for Virginia aboard the ship Neptune. He died at sea in June.

His body was probably preserved in a barrel of wine or spirits, Kelso said, as he was too important to be buried at sea. (More than a century later, famous British Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson was preserved in similar fashion after he was killed in the Battle of Trafalgar.)

The Neptune reached Virginia in August, and De La Warr was almost certainly buried inside the confines of the Jamestown church that had just been finished on the site.

Crosses mark the site of graves dating back to 1607 at Historic Jamestowne. (Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

“He would go in a church chancel,” Kelso said in a recent interview. “And I don’t think there’s much of a competition existing in Virginia, other than this Jamestown church, that would be a likely place where he would be buried.

“So, yeah, I think he’s in there,” he said.

‘Beautiful bones’

The old bones rested in a wooden drying box with a mesh bottom on the metal table in Jamestown Rediscovery’s laboratory.

A carton of blue rubber gloves and a container of surgical masks sat near a wooden osteometric measuring board.

“This is a big man,” Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas Owsley said as he examined the bones earlier this month. “We are not used to seeing Jamestown colonists that are the size of this guy. . . . Not that he’s so tall. He’s just sturdy.”

He might have had a better diet than others, or a higher status, Bruwelheide said.

The bones had been unearthed from the church the day before, and she, Owsley and data manager Katie Barca were making an initial assessment: Measuring the limbs to determine stature, and checking for wear, which could be a clue to age.

At an adjacent table, Jamestown conservators Dan Gamble and Don Warmke were cleaning the dirt from the bones of other individuals with tiny brushes and deionized water.

“These are beautiful bones, in terms of preservation,” Owsley said, far better than most recovered at Jamestown, and the kind from which DNA might be extracted.

But there were numerous “shovel bites” gouged in a right thigh bone, probably during the earlier archaeology, he said.

The man had normal wear around his knee joints. But a hip socket was an unusual elliptical shape.

“Don’t know anything about this guy,” Owsley said. “But if I said I knew anything, I’d say, [he was a] horseman.

“The fascinating thing is: That’s going to be status, and not necessarily in this country, but where he came from,” he said.

The clue was tantalizing. Was this Lord De La Warr, who, as an elite, would often have been on horseback? Or someone else?

Either way, it raised the cosmic question: “Who are you? And what was your life like?” Owsley said.

“It’s so much the beginning of who we are,” he said.