Three of the four men buried in the chancel were interred in wooden coffins. Only traces of the wood survived in the acidic tidewater soil, but the Jamestown Rediscovery team found a total of 125 coffin nails in the three graves. Could the positions of the nails shed light on the coffins and how they were constructed? Working under the theory that the soil would have held the nails in place even as the wood decayed, archaeologists mapped the location and orientation of each nail using a total station during the excavation process.

Once the digging was finished, each nail was mapped in 3D space and the shapes of the coffins were clearly revealed: Captain Gabriel Archer had been buried in a hexagonal coffin and Sir Ferdinando Wainman and Captain William West in anthropomorphic coffins. A hexagonal coffin is widest at the shoulders and tapers toward each end. Archer’s coffin exhibited nails and fragments along the midline, suggesting either that the side had collapsed inward or that the lid was constructed of multiple pieces as might have been done if it were gabled. Anthropomorphic, or human-shaped, coffins are narrow around the head, widen out at the shoulders, and taper toward the feet. The nails and their relative positions were nearly identical indicating the same carpenter made both coffins.

These coffins are some of the earliest examples of these two forms found in an English colonial setting. Burying an individual in a coffin in the 17th century was an indicator of high status, but the complexity of the coffin forms further underscores the importance of these men to the colony.


Artifacts