Ivor Noël Hume, a would-be British playwright who uncovered some of the most important artifacts of early British settlements in Virginia and who, during his three decades leading archaeological studies in Williamsburg, Va., helped redefine his field in the public mind, died Feb. 4 at his Williamsburg home. He was 89.
His death was first reported by the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Noël Hume began his career as a self-taught archaeologist in England before coming to Williamsburg, where in 1957 he became the chief archaeologist of Virginia’s former colonial capital. He led efforts that unearthed some of Williamsburg’s most important 18th-century structures, such as the Hay Cabinet Shop, the James Anderson House and the Public Hospital, the first institution on American soil for treating mental illness.
Scores of young archaeologists trained under Mr. Noël Hume, and he became an eloquent voice for archaeology in television appearances, magazine articles and more than a dozen books.
Historian Arthur Quinn, writing a New York Times review of Mr. Noël Hume’s 1994 book “The Virginia Adventure,’’ called him “unquestionably the foremost colonial archaeologist of his generation.”
Archaeological work began at Williamsburg in the 1920s, but when Mr. Noël Hume arrived three decades later he helped make it the country’s premier site for presenting the history of Colonial America. He freely admitted that he introduced a touch of showmanship, which he borrowed from his early experience as a dramatist.
“Coming out of the theater, my attitude was that this belongs to the public,” he told Mid-Atlantic magazine in 1995. “Why are we being paid to save this stuff if we don’t show it to the public?”
Before Mr. Noël Hume, many archaeologists examining early American history were content to dig out the foundations of buildings hidden in the earth and consider their work done. The bottles, pottery and metal objects found among those buildings were often ignored or even tossed back in the earth.
Mr. Noël Hume collected the pottery shards and made them his academic specialty. Moreover, he helped introduce research methods that brought a new emphasis to understanding people of the past through the objects they handled.
“The archaeologist’s function,” he wrote in “A Passion for the Past,” his 2010 autobiography, “is no different from that of the police detective asking, ‘Who done it?’ The splintered window, the fingerprint on the glass, the bloody blade, are important only if they lead to the killer; in archaeology the shattered pitcher and the stained earth are only valuable if they help us to determine who did what, why, and to whom.”
The first British settlement in Virginia was made at Jamestown in 1607. For years, no trace of the settlement could be found.
In the 1970s, Mr. Noël Hume discovered a previously unknown settlement about nine miles away called Wolstenholme Towne. Settled in 1619, Wolstenholme once had more than 200 British residents.
Their numbers were reduced by disease and by a 1622 Indian attack, which killed an estimated 58 of the 140 surviving colonial settlers. Mr. Noël Hume found victims’ skeletons haphazardly tossed into graves, as well as visored military helmets and the oldest pieces of British pottery in North America.
“What makes these new discoveries so important is that nothing of the Jamestown settlement and fort dating from 1607 has ever been found,” Mr. Noël Hume told the Associated Press in 1979. “Thus, the remains of buildings and artifacts unearthed at Wolstenholme provide us with our earliest evidence of life and death in Colonial Virginia.”
His 1982 book about the discoveries, “Martin’s Hundred” — the name of a larger area in which Wolstenholme Towne was situated — became a bestseller. The Colonial Williamsburg organization established a museum at Martin’s Hundred, on the grounds of an 18th-century plantation, Carter’s Grove.
“I’ve been digging for 30 years,” Mr. Noël Hume told Newsweek in 1979, “and I doubt if I shall ever find anything as important again.”
Colonial Williamsburg closed the Martin’s Hundred museum for financial reasons in 2003. Carter’s Grove was sold to a private owner in 2007, and its archaeological treasures have been hidden from public view ever since.
Ivor Noël Hume was born Sept. 30, 1927, in London. (The hyphen between his two last names was omitted from his birth certificate.)
His father was a banker, his mother a socialite, and they divorced when their son was a child. He attended boarding schools beginning at age 6 and “was drawn to a world of make-believe, to the theater, to history, to archaeology,” he said years later.
An injury during a training exercise disqualified him from military service during World War II. Finding a job at a theatrical company that he called a “school for starlets,” he painted scenery and worked as a stage manager while aspiring to be a playwright.
Searching for ideas, he attended court hearings and, with time on his hands, began to take walks along the banks of the Thames, collecting old coins, pottery and other objects.
He raced to the scene of German bombings in London, which sometimes revealed ancient artifacts, including Roman statues and jewelry. One of his most striking discoveries was a goatskin “bikini,” apparently worn by a female athlete in the 2nd century.
Mr. Noël Hume sold a few items to London’s Guildhall Museum, where he became a volunteer and later an assistant curator. When the museum’s director resigned in 1949, Mr. Noël Hume took over his duties and continued his archaeological work, becoming an authority on English pottery and bottles.
In 1950 he met an archaeologist from the U.S. National Park Service, which led to a visit to Williamsburg several years later as a consultant. Mr. Noël Hume and his wife, the former Audrey Baines, also an archaeologist, settled in Williamsburg in 1957. They worked together for years, he as Colonial Williamsburg’s chief archaeologist, she as curator. She died in 1993.
Survivors include his wife of 22 years, the former Carol Grazier of Williamsburg; four stepchildren; a brother; and nine grandchildren.
After Mr. Noël Hume retired from Colonial Williamsburg in 1988, he worked at an archaeological site on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island, where a settlement that became known as the “Lost Colony” was established in the 16th century. He led a team that found evidence of a metallurgist’s shop, suggesting that it might have been the first scientific laboratory on U.S. soil.
For years scholars could find no sign of the first settlement at Jamestown, thinking that the wooden foundations of a fort had been washed away. But Mr. Noël Hume thought otherwise, describing in “The Virginia Adventure” where he thought a fort might have stood.
In 1996, one of his archaeological proteges, William Kelso, discovered the site of that first fort at Jamestown, almost exactly where Mr. Noël Hume suggested it would be.
At his Williamsburg home, Mr. Noël Hume was surrounded by pottery, books and a clock built in the 1740s.
“When I wind the clock every day,” he told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 2010, “I’m thinking about how many generations heard this noise. Who turned the key before me? Were they happy? With every artifact, I see past the surface to the people who made them and used them.”