In one of the most important archaeological discoveries of modern times, the Jamestown Rediscovery Project has located the original James Fort site established by the English in 1607. This finding — which includes the fort’s military features and its buildings, wells, cellars, ditches, and trash pits — has provided incomparable contextual integrity for more than two million associated objects left behind by the early settlers.
The clues read by the archaeologists in the grounds of James Fort mesh closely with surviving historical documents, enabling tight dating for many of the discoveries. Sometimes this means artifacts can be associated to within two or three years of the early 17th century, many representing objects that ceased being used in England in the century before.
But the archaeological findings also cast much of the traditional interpretations of the historical narrative into doubt. Far from reflecting a lackluster colonizing attempt by ill-equipped and uninformed individuals, the objects speak of adaptation and industry as the colonists endeavored to make Virginia a profitable venture. Present are tools and by-products of various artisans and specialists as they surveyed, extracted, and tested Virginia’s resources; struggled to heal the wounded and sick; and otherwise provided support for the colony. Artifacts reflect the essential relationships the English established with the Virginia Indians and the military equipment and practices they used when those contacts became hostile. Household and personal items speak to the choices made by individuals as they ventured to a new and largely unknown destination. Many of the goods reflect a stratified society whereby some of the colonists had access to a global trading network that afforded them material reflections of their status. The presence of other early settlers, particularly the women and children who arrived within the first years of the colony, are only noted by the objects they left behind.
This artifact collection has only just begun to reveal the stories of America’s birthplace and the men, women, and children who helped to lay its foundations.