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Rethinking Jamestown

America's first permanent colonists have long been considered lazy and incompetent. But new evidence suggests that it was a prolonged drought—not indolence—that almost did them in

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Blanton and his colleagues conclude that the Jamestown colonists probably have been unfairly criticized “for poor planning, poor support, and a startling indifference to their own subsistence.” The Jamestown settlers “had the monumental bad luck to arrive in April 1607,” the authors wrote. “Even the best planned and supported colony would have been supremely challenged” under such conditions.

Kelso and his co-workers are hardly the first archaeologists to probe the settlement. In 1893, the APVA acquired 22.5 acres of JamestownIsland, most of which had become farmland. In 1901, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructed a sea wall to protect the site from further river erosion; a few graves and the statehouse at the settlement’s western end were excavated at the time as well. In the 1950s, National Park Service archaeologists found footings and foundations of 17th-century structures east of the fort and hundreds of artifacts, though they couldn’t locate the fort itself; since the 1800s it was widely assumed to lie underwater.

Today, the site of the original colonial settlement is largely given over to archaeological research, with few visual links to the past. Kelso and a full-time staff of ten work almost year-round, and they’re assisted by some 20 student workers during the summer. Tourists wander the grassy site snapping pictures of Kelso’s team toiling behind protective fences. Bronze statues of Smith and Pocahontas stand along the James River. There’s a gift shop and a restored 17th-century church. And a $5 million “archaearium”—a 7,500-square-foot educational building that will house many of the colonial artifacts— is to be completed for the 2007 quadricentennial.

The surge in research at the original Jamestown can be traced to 1994, when the APVA , anticipating the colony’s 400th anniversary, launched a ten-year hunt for physical evidence of Jamestown’s origins and hired Kelso, who had excavated 17th-century sites near Williamsburg and was then conducting historical research at Monticello.

Kelso is unmistakably pleased with the revisionist spin his findings have given to the Jamestown saga. Yet rewriting history, he says, was not what he had in mind when he began the work. “I simply wanted to get the rest of the story,” he says. Most of what is known of Jamestown’s grim early years, he notes, comes from the writings of Smith—clearly the most prolific of the colony’s chroniclers—and a handful of his compatriots, along with a few sketchy records from the Virginia Company in London. Such documents, Kelso says, are a “deliberate record” and often are “written with a slant favorable to the writer.” Smith’s journal, for example, frequently depicts many of his fellow colonists as shiftless and inept. But Smith’s journal “is obviously slanted,” says Kelso. “He comes out the star in his own movie.”

An example is the tale of Smith’s rescue by the Indian princess Pocahontas, which Smith first related in his writings in 1624, some 17 years after the incident. Because the story was never mentioned in his earlier writings, some historians now dismiss it as legend—though Pocahontas did exist.

Not that Jamestown’s archaeological evidence is beyond question. Some archaeologists argue that it’s nearly impossible to date Jamestown’s artifacts or differentiate the founding colonists’ debris from what later arrivals left behind. Retired Virginia archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume, the former director of archaeology at nearby Colonial Williamsburg, notes that the fort was occupied until the 1620s and was rebuilt several times. “It’s hard to pin down what the original settlers brought with them and what came later,” he says.

But Kelso and Straube say they can accurately date most of the artifacts and draw reasonable conclusions as to when certain structures were built and abandoned. “If we find a piece of broken pottery in a trash pit, and another piece of the same vessel in a nearby well,” Straube explains, “we know these two structures existed at the same time.” Moreover, she says, the appearance of certain imported items from Portugal, Spain or Germany indicate a period after the Virginia Company lost its charter in 1624 and the colony’s management was turned over to England’s Crown. “It’s really a different Jamestown in the later period,” she says.

Some historians still have their doubts. “What they are finding may require some adjustment to the views of historians relying solely on documents,” Yale’s Morgan concedes. But the reputation of Jamestown as a failure will be a hard one to shake, he adds: “It will take a lot more than a half million artifacts to show that the Virginia Company learned from its mistakes and made a go of it in the colonies.”

Kelso is convinced that much more colonial history lies buried in the island’s soil. During the 2004 digging season, excavators uncovered the footprint of a long and narrow building inside the fort. The presence of unusually fancy glassware and pieces of Chinese porcelain buried inside suggests to Straube that it was a place of high-style dining and entertaining, perhaps the governor’s home, which written records indicate was built in 1611. In the cellar of another structure, a student volunteer uncovered wine bottles, intact but empty, that are believed to date to the late 1600s, when Jamestown was prospering as a tobacco and trade center.

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