In October, the Jamestown Rediscovery team focused exclusively on the eastern end of the Jamestown Memorial Church. They hoped to uncover evidence of the 1617 church’s east wall and to locate burials related to the chancel of that church. Excavations by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries uncovered the north and south foundations for the 1617 church, but not the east and west walls. Knowing specifically where the end walls of the 1617 church stood is crucial for pinpointing the exact locations of the chancel and “quire” [choir], where the first General Assembly met in July, 1619.
A year of excavating the entire floor of the 1906 Memorial Church and removing the APVA backfill helped us understand better what the former excavators did and how they left the site. Fortunately, Rediscovery archaeologists discovered that many of the structural elements noted by the APVA survived. Excavations also revealed that the APVA excavators concentrated in the chancel of the church, where they reported digging some of the burials. However, their descriptions of burial investigations both inside the church and out in the churchyard were ambiguous.
Mary Jeffery Galt and Richmond stone mason William Leal dug the first burial, which was located inside the church’s northeast corner. One report stated that raised tiles marked a grave in that area. In her field journal, Galt’s handwritten notes give some details of the skeletal remains and artifacts that they encountered in corner test:
“6th June 1901. Grave N.E. cor. Under Chancel- opened grave very large man- not cut his wisdom teeth- Shoulder bones 18 inches- nails of coffin handmade. Grave from floor of aisle 3 ft. to bottom of grave. Seems to be shallow grave. (“You can’t say but that’s a rotten as the Preacher” said Mr. Leal of length of time in grave.) Some large nails found and splinters of decayed coffin, large pieces of cement seems to have been layer of cement over coffin. 5ft 6/10 length of skeleton.”
Galt did not mention what happened to the remains after their discovery. Archaeologist Bob Chartrand discovered the bottom of the brick church’s north and east foundations and found little evidence of the skeletal remains described by Galt, which indicates they moved the remains to a new location, but didn’t record where. Subsoil was revealed at an approximate depth of three feet from the tiles that were removed in September.
Near completion of the test, Chartrand noticed that the backfill continued underneath the church’s north wall in one spot. Upon excavation, he discovered an intentionally dug hole under the foundation. In the bottom of the hole was a broken chancel paver upon which lay a rusted, oval-shaped iron box. What he located was a 1901 time capsule buried by the APVA for future archaeologists to discover!
According to Merry Outlaw, Curator, the object is a machine-made tin can, about 5” long, 3” wide, and 1-1/2’ deep, with a removable lid. “Unfortunately, because it was exposed to moisture for more than a century, any labeling on the can was obscured by corrosion. Based on its size and shape it is likely a tobacco or snuff tin,” Outlaw said.
Once in the lab, Rediscovery conservators Michael Lavin and Dan Gamble x-rayed the can and concluded that whatever it held was likely organic. The x-ray revealed that several areas of the thin metal had rusted completely through. When it was finally opened by conservators, they found a small, folded sheet of paper with crumbling edges stuck to the bottom of the can. Sadly, at the present time, the message is indecipherable. “It was really exciting to have found a 1901 time capsule and then really disappointing that the message in it was indecipherable,” lamented Chartrand.