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HomeNewsChurch Approves DNA Research

Captain Gosnold Trades with the Indians by Theodor de Bry. Image courtesy of the Virginia Historical Society.
For the first time Church authorities have granted special permission for DNA material to be extracted from a grave to aid a scientific project.

After more than two months of detailed consultation, the Chancellor of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich, His Honour Sir John Blofeld, has given permission for a limited archaeological excavation to take place at All Saints parish church, Shelley, Suffolk. Scientists from the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation Virginia) are hoping to extract DNA from the remains of Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, sister of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, the man who founded the first English speaking colony in the New World. In 1607, Gosnold established the Jamestown settlement in what is now Virginia, but died a few months later. He is considered the most overlooked of the country's founders. According to John Smith, one of the most famous Jamestown leaders, Gosnold was, "the prime moving force" behind the settlement of Jamestown. APVA Preservation Virginia archaeologists' have excavated the remains of a 17th century captain at the James Fort site. With the 400th anniversary of Gosnold's landing approaching, it is seeking to archaeologically obtain mitochondrial DNA bone samples from Gosnold's maternal relatives in Suffolk. Backed by National Geographic Society, the project aims to prove that the captain in Virginia is the USA's Founding Father.

Radar survey of the excavation site in Shelley church, Suffolk, England.  This is the burial place of Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Tilney.  She is a possible candidate for a DNA match. Image courtesy of The Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
Radar survey of the excavation site in Shelley church, Suffolk, England. This is the burial place of Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Tilney, a possible candidate for a DNA match. Image courtesy of The Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich.
"It is a very exciting development," says James Halsall, the Gosnold project spokesman for the Diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich. "For the first time a scientific project has been given the go ahead to seek to extract DNA material to establish the identity of a family member. It has taken a lot of work and co-operation between the parish, diocese and national church authorities in Britain and American scientists. The application succeeded where others have failed because the reason and methodology of the project was well thought through."

Elizabeth S. Kostelny, executive director for APVA Preservation Virginia, says, "We feel very privileged that the Church of England has granted us permission to proceed, and it seems very appropriate that this great explorer, who founded what has become the United States of America, should be at the centre of this historic venture to 'rediscover' our nation's origins. It is also fitting that Jamestown, the site of the first Anglican church in America, should be involved."

It is anticipated that the Shelley exploration could be undertaken in June. Meanwhile, a second application relating to the remains of Gosnold's niece, Katherine Blackerby, buried in St Peter and St Mary church Stowmarket, is still being considered.

William M Kelso, APVA Director of Archaeology says, "This UK-USA cooperative research effort offers the exciting opportunity to let archaeology help re-focus the founding story of America's origins in time for its 400th anniversary in 2007."

Dr Joseph Elders of the Council for the Care of Churches says, "The Church has a strong presumption against the disturbance of human remains in its care. In previous cases the decisive factor in the refusal of consent was the poor quality of the historical evidence upon which the applications were based. The APVA project has been conducted to high professional and academic standards, and this is an important factor enabling a more positive approach in this particular case. The Council will assist the Diocese in ensuring that proper standards of decency and care are observed during the work."

If DNA samples can be obtained, the results of compartive tests will be revealed in a television documentary produced by National Georgraphic Television & Film expected to be transmitted later in the year.

Media Contact:
Paula Neely

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