After being lost to history for more than four centuries, the discovery and identification of the men buried in the chancel of the 1608 church illustrates how forensic analysis, archaeology, sophisticated technology, and archival research can be employed to aid new understandings of the past.
Dr. Douglas Owsley and his team at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History have been working with the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists since the project’s inception in 1994. The biological profile of every skeleton is unique, and the Smithsonian team can interpret clues “written in bone” and compare them to what is known about the colonists from the historical record.
Each of the remains of the individuals buried in the chancel revealed critical information about the approximate age of death, stature, and sex of each one. All were male and the ages of death ranged the youngest being 21-24 and the oldest 35-40.
The bones also underwent chemical testing to learn more about the status and origins of the individuals. The amount of lead present in the bones of 17th-century people can be an indicator of status. High status individuals of this time period will often have higher lead levels in their bones as they were more likely to be eating and drinking from lead-glazed dishes and vessels made from pewter, a lead alloy. Ratios of carbon isotopes taken from tooth enamel can provide a general idea of a person’s origin. People who grew up eating “old world” grains, such as wheat and barley, will have a different carbon signature from those who consumed a maize-based diet. All four of the men buried in the chancel were found to be of European origin and two, Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captain William West, had high lead levels indicating their high-born status.