visualizing the evidence

Experimental Archaeology: Bringing Jamestown’s Early Church to Life

mud and stud

Most early buildings at James Fort were of earthfast or post-in-ground construction. They can be identified by archaeologists based on the patterns of postholes left behind after the posts themselves have been removed or rotted away. Artifacts can also provide information about the building’s construction. Based on the evidence seen at Jamestown, it is likely that the early buildings were built in a style known as “mud and stud.” This type of architecture is characterized by large support posts with smaller upright wooden studs or laths between them which were plastered with mud to create thick, solid walls. Mud and stud buildings were common in 16th- and 17th-century Lincolnshire, England. Several early settlers came from Lincolnshire, including Captain John Smith and a carpenter named William Laxon.

More than 25 years of archaeology at the site of James Fort have revealed the footprints of the fort itself and of numerous structures within it. Jamestown Rediscovery has partially rebuilt some elements of the fort to help both visitors and researchers better understand the layout of the buildings and defenses. Although there is currently no plan to fully reconstruct the fort, the representative structures help to give us a sense of what the site would have been like in the early 17th century.

All of the reconstructions are based on evidence from the excavations as well as historical descriptions and contemporary examples of similar structures at other sites. Building accurate representations of 17th-century structures requires understanding of the archaeological features left behind, but also of historical architectural styles and construction techniques. The structures you see at Jamestown today are the result of extensive research and collaboration by various specialists.

In addition to helping to bring the “lost” fort back to life for visitors, the reconstruction process has provided valuable opportunities for experimental archaeology, allowing us to test and refine our interpretations of the archaeological evidence. Rebuilding the structures found through archaeology helps us to understand how the original structures were built and maintained.

To date, there are reconstructions of sections of the palisade walls and bulwarks, a partial reconstruction outlining the 1608 church, a partial frame representing the 1617 church, and a blacksmith’s shop which is used in season for historic trades demonstrations. A previously reconstructed barracks frame which had stood since 2006 is being replaced in 2020 thanks to generous funding from the Jamestown Society. The blacksmith’s shop is also undergoing donor-funded improvements in 2020, including a new roof and a more substantial forge. Scroll down for more information about each of these structures.

The National Park Service also operates a reconstructed glasshouse near the entrance to Historic Jamestowne. It was built in 1956 on the site of a 17th-century glasshouse excavated by NPS archaeologists and is used for demonstrations of traditional glassblowing techniques.

In addition to the physical reconstructions on site, Jamestown Rediscovery has embarked on the Virtual Fort Project, which will recreate James Fort using digital 3-D models. This is a less expensive and less time-consuming way to “rebuild” early Jamestown than a complete reconstruction would be, and one that is easier to update as new evidence comes to light. Eventually, there will be detailed models reflecting several different periods in Jamestown’s early history.


fort image gallery
A section of the South Palisade soon after reconstruction
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the fort

Archaeologists began finding evidence for James Fort’s original palisade walls almost as soon as the Jamestown Rediscovery project began in 1994. The full footprint of the triangular 1607 fort, just over an acre in area, was confirmed by 2003. The fort’s defenses—three walls with a curved bulwark at each corner—were built of upright posts set into trenches. Both the trenches and the individual post molds could be seen in excavations, so that archaeologists could map the exact size, shape, and position of the posts. The modern posts are a little shorter than the originals would have been, as the holes could not be dug deep enough to support taller posts without disturbing archaeological deposits. Not only do the reconstructed walls and bulwarks allow visitors to see what the fort would have looked like, building them was a learning opportunity for the Jamestown Rediscovery team. You can read more about the process in the October 2006 Dig Update.

wooden building frame
The first barracks reconstruction

the barracks

Learn more about the barracks reconstruction project.

blacksmith's shop image gallery
Working on the roof of the blacksmith’s shop
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the blacksmith’s shop

Located on the site of an archaeologically-documented blacksmith’s shop from the early years of the fort, the reconstructed forge is actually used for smithing by our historic trades interpreters. The building frame was constructed in 2019. In 2020, thanks to a generous donor, it will receive a complete roof and an improved forge with a more substantial chimney. The archaeological evidence pointing to the original building’s function consisted of metalworking waste and scraps along with two postholes consistent with the placement of a bellows.

1608 church image gallery
The partially reconstructed 1608 church provides a sense of place
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the 1608 church

First identified by archaeologists in 2010, the 1608 church is the oldest English church in North America. Like other early buildings at Jamestown, it was of mud and stud construction, consisting of large support posts filled in with smaller wooden studs plastered with mud. Its walls were partially reconstructed in 2015 to show the size and layout of the church along with the construction style. The reconstructed outline is slightly offset from the original so as not to disturb the original postholes, and the mud used for the walls contains modern additives to help it last. To help visualize the interior of the church, the team added a reproduction chancel rail, crosses marking the four graves in the chancel, and benches in the nave. You can learn more in the April 2015 Dig Update. A virtual model of the 1608 church is also currently in progress as part of the Virtual Fort Project.

Church interior with wooden framing and chancel gate
Features of the 1617 church recreated inside the Memorial Church

the 1617 church

The site of the 1617 church is now occupied by the 1907 Memorial Church. From 2017–2019 archaeologists excavated within and around the current church to confirm the footprint of the 1617 church, the earliest church in this location. Building on knowledge from some of the earliest excavations at Jamestown, the 21st-century team was able to locate the cobblestone foundations of all four sides of the church. In 2019, based on the archaeological evidence and extensive research using historical documents and surviving 17th-century English churches, a partial building frame representing the 1617 church was erected inside the Memorial Church by historical construction specialists from Black Creek Workshop. The space has also been furnished with period-appropriate reproduction pews and benches and a chancel rail. The “Knight’s Tombstone,” which likely marked the grave of Governor Sir George Yeardley, has undergone conservation treatment and been replaced in what was once the chancel of the 1617 church. A virtual model of the 1617 church is also nearing completion.