Archaeologists excavating a well

A wooden barrel has been discovered about eleven feet deep into an early 17th-century well. The barrel was used as a lining to keep the clay walls from collapsing and cutting off access to the water. Just feet away, two wooden boards were found that were perhaps used by the colonists to steady themselves as they constructed the well in the muddy conditions below the water table. Now that they’ve hit the water table, the archaeologists are fighting a constant battle with the elements, trying to pump out water faster than it seeps in from the saturated soil surrounding them. The 400-year-old wooden barrel is largely intact and is in good shape due to the anaerobic conditions beneath the water table. Currently the well excavations are on hold though as the remnants of Hurricane Ida and a nor’easter have flooded much of Jamestown Island.

The Jamestown Rediscovery team has found the top portion of a wooden barrel that was used as a lining for the bottom, waterlogged layers of what was probably James Fort’s first well. At this same depth two loose wooden planks were found in the soil and the archaeologists speculate that the builders stood on them to get a more secure footing while dealing with all the mud. The wood is oak, and tests will be conducted to determine if it is American or European in origin. In order to help keep the water and mud at bay while excavating, the archaeologists are using a method of wall construction that they observed while excavating the ca. 1611 well three years ago. They are hammering fence pickets into the ground and then nailing horizontally-oriented wooden planks into them. This is very similar to the technique employed by the colonists in the construction of the said well found close to the fort’s northern bulwark.

The number of artifacts being found at this depth is much lower than at the layers above. Further excavations deeper into the well will tell us if a cache of artifacts lie at the bottom as with other wells found in and around James Fort or if the protected nature of this well might preclude that. Being as it appears that the well was inside a building attached to the storehouse, access to the well might have been regulated as access to the storehouse most certainly was. Less frequent access to the well could mean less objects were accidentally dropped inside while the well was still in use. As detailed in previous updates, the presence of a huge amount of artifacts in the layers above suggests that this well was used as a trash pit once the water turned sour. A few artifacts have turned up in the lower levels so far. More butchered horse bones—perhaps evidence that this well was open during the Starving Time—were found at this depth. The English would not normally eat such a valuable animal and the fact that these bones exhibit butchering marks suggests that they were in desperate need of food. Sherds of Roanoke simple-stamped pottery have been found at these lower depths and they are just the latest in a number of Native pottery pieces found in the well. Lastly, a cannonball was found at the current excavation level.

The Jamestown Rediscovery team plans on digging as long as it takes to hit the bottom of the well before stopping for the season. Normally colder weather would dictate the end of excavations, but the delicate nature of the artifacts found in the waterlogged layers forces the team to complete the well excavations before going inside for the winter. Once artifacts are exposed to the air after 400 years of being underwater deterioration is rapid. For that reason, the dig will go on and artifacts found will be quickly resubmerged in the conservation lab.

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Dig Update Archive, 2004-present