Archaeologists excavating above outlined grave shafts

Thanks to precise and patient trowel work by staff and intern archaeologists, the east churchyard site opened by the 2017 Jamestown Field School students finally yielded its findings this July. The area contained over 30 burials and several planting furrows related to early farming at James Fort in 1607-1608.

The thickest layers of overburden in the area related to two phases of landscaping completed by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in the early 20th century. Removal of these modern layers revealed intact colonial topsoil, which was trampled and mixed over the surface of the graves. It appears that when the colonists were burying people in the churchyard, the original ground level was close to this elevation. Units excavated near here in 2013 required dozens of trowel cleanings to identify the graves and their relationship to one another, and to reveal features predating the churchyard.

“With each pass of the trowel, the burial shafts became more defined and it was apparent that the churchyard had extended outside the 20th century brick wall. Also, the identification of more planting furrows indicates that the boundaries of James Fort’s earliest agricultural fields remain undetermined,” remarked Field Supervisor Mary Anna Hartley.

While the team did not uncover evidence of structures predating the burials, they did discover several early 17th-century artifacts that suggest that a 17th-century building site may be nearby. Artifacts scattered throughout the intact colonial topsoil included a bone handle knife, a copper alloy Catholic medallion, an iron counter weight for a sword, an iron scabbard chape, and dozens of fragments of scrap copper.

Indicating that there were three different burial periods, the burials were in at least three different east-west orientations. Many are perpendicular to the Memorial Church, which sits directly upon the foundations of the 1640s and 1680s churches. Others are line up with the c. 1800 brick churchyard wall, which is slightly misaligned with the church. Curiously, a few graves appear to be perpendicular to the 1607 James Fort’s east palisade wall. Once all of the burials are mapped, their orientations and relationships with graves discovered in other areas of the church will help to determine when they were interred.

The interior of the Memorial Church has also been abuzz with activity in July. Jamestown field school students completed the removal of the west half of the floor and archaeologists tested features previously dug and recorded by the early-20th century APVA preservationists. Simultaneously, conservator Michael Lavin removed the concrete curbs that lined the north and south walls of the Memorial Church since its construction. These curbs once supported an iron fence that allowed visitors to view the exposed foundations of the earlier churches. The iron fence was later replaced with ground level glass panels through which, for the past few decades, visitors could see the 17th century foundations.

After the curbs were removed, archaeologists re-excavated the original trench along the south wall of the 1640s church. It was within this trench that Mary Jeffery Galt, APVA founder, records digging “with [her] own hands” in 1897, and a silver dime of that date was recovered in the backfill. Galt wrote that in the trench she found an inner wall with cobblestones, clay, and brickwork of a church pre-dating the 1640s church. She proposed that the wall related to the 1617 church that was constructed when Samuel Argall was governor. Comparable to Rediscovery’s findings along the north wall of the 1617 church, the team located grave shafts cutting through parts of the cobblestone wall. In contrast to the north wall discoveries, more of the south wall survived the later burial intrusions.

After removal of the Memorial Church construction backfill, the outlines of previous tests became visible. Included in Galt’s report is a description of the test in the southwest corner. She wrote: “On the 7th of June we discovered in the southwest corner of the church floor the 6 x 6 compartment in a frail foundation, the two spades and grubbing hoe of the sexton….” Rediscovery archaeologists began re-excavating the southwest corner test this month, and curators and conservators in the lab began re-examining the aforementioned tools, which are in Rediscovery’s archaeological collections. Watch for more developments about this compartment and its contents.

Finally, the modern brickwork in the north half of the chancel aisle was removed to reveal the discoveries made in that area more than one hundred years ago. A small marble block incised “No. 2” was placed there by the APVA excavators. Unfortunately, documents about the block and its meaning have never been found. Rediscovery archaeologists and historians predicted that it and others like it throughout the 20th-century tilework floor marked burials that were found during the APVA excavations.

The theory proved correct, for when the marble block was removed, a backfilled burial shaft was exposed. In addition to revealing this shaft, the Rediscovery team uncovered another APVA-tested burial shaft and discovered bricks from the original chancel aisle. Before continuing excavations in the chancel aisle, the staff anticipates that they will completely remove the modern tilework and concrete from the chancel during the month of August. Check on our progress in the August dig update.

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