Aerial view of statehouse excavations
Statehouse excavations

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From 1607 to 1699, Jamestown was the legislative seat of Virginia. The First General Assembly met in the 1617 church, setting a precedent for representative government. In the following years, the House of Burgesses and the General Court (the governor and councilors) met on numerous sites before constructing a building specifically to house the government. This structure was referred to as the Statehouse. Historical documents provided hints to this building’s initial construction in 1663, its usage, and its eventual destruction by fire in 1698, yet the building’s exact location remained uncertain until the 20th century.

In 1903, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now Preservation Virginia) contracted the Army Corps of Engineers to construct a seawall that would prevent further erosion of the Jamestown site. The lead engineer, Colonel Samuel Yonge, also directed excavation of an eroding brick foundation he noticed near the edge of the APVA property. In his 1907 book, The Site of Old Jamestown, Yonge describes a long structure in five portions, built in several phases from west to east, and including several cellar and porch additions. He unearthed a variety of 17th-century artifacts and concluded that the building had burned. Based on the recovered evidence, Yonge believed that the large, eastern-most section of the complex was the original 1663 Statehouse. Combining this theory with a 1680s land patent to Philip Ludwell that seemed to match the middle buildings, Yonge termed the site the Ludwell Statehouse Complex. Following his excavations, he had the foundations capped with concrete—an early protection method.

Several archaeological excavations followed Yonge’s work. The National Park Service investigated the Statehouse end of the complex in 1954 and 1955, led by Louis Caywood and Joel Shiner respectively. Their work discovered a large 17th-century burial ground that predated the building foundations. The site was later explored by J. Paul Hudson, another National Park Service archaeologist, and Ted Reinhart from the College of William and Mary. In 2000, in preparation for Jamestown’s 400th anniversary, the Jamestown Rediscovery team led by Bill Kelso opened the site once more. Their findings both confirmed and called into question previous conclusions of the site.

In 2006, the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium archaeological museum was built over the Statehouse foundations, the eastern-most building in the complex. The museum was designed on helical piers and cantilevers over the foundations, to preserve the original site below the new structure. Visitors today can look through the museum’s glass floor and view the brick foundations of the only building at Jamestown created to house the General Assembly. Click the links below to learn more about this project.