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Historic Jamestown remains identified

July 28, 2015 This article courtesy of Nature News.

Forensic tools help name occupants of four unmarked graves.

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Skeletal remains buried beneath a historic church in Jamestown, Virginia, belonged to four prominent settlers of America's first English colony.

The group included a minister, two military captains and the first English knight buried in North America, a research team announced on 28 July at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

“These men witnessed the first three years of the establishment of the colony,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation in Jamestown.

Smithsonian anthropologists and archaeologists with Jamestown Rediscovery used a variety of tools to identify the four incomplete skeletons, which were excavated in 2013. First, they narrowed down the potential candidates using a handful of surviving historical documents from the colony’s early years. Then they used chemical tests, genealogical records, a digital analysis of bones and artefacts and contextual clues from the four graves to make the final identifications.

For instance, one of the graves contained a simple shroud and no coffin, and faced the church’s congregation. These clues, along with an estimate of the man’s age when he died, allowed the team to identify the remains as Rev. Robert Hunt, the first Anglican minister at Jamestown. Historical records indicate that he died in 1608 and was around 39 years old.

Similarly, researchers suspected that another grave belonged to Capt. Gabriel Archer, because it included a coffin and the decayed remnants of a ceremonial staff. Archer was also buried with a silver reliquary containing bones and a small vessel that might have held holy water, which could indicate that he was secretly Catholic while living in a colony that tried to spread the Anglican faith to local tribes. “Was Archer a secret Catholic?” asked Horn. “Was this part of a secret Catholic cell? These are the questions we're going to continue to research.” Archer died in late 1609 or 1610 during a dismal winter that claimed the lives of 250 settlers by disease, starvation and attacks by Native Americans.

Lead in the bones of another skeleton helped confirm the identity of Capt. William West, whose grave also contained a military sash. The affluent West's bones contained high levels of lead, probably because he absorbed the heavy metal from using pewter and ceramic cups and bowls during his life. But records show he was ultimately killed during a battle with Native Americans in 1610.

The final skeleton had even higher concentrations of lead and was identified as Sir Ferdinando Wainman, an English knight and a cousin of West's nephew. In a testament to his status, Wainman was buried in a human-shaped coffin with a square section for his head, unlike a standard hexagonal coffin. Researchers realized this when they discovered the pattern of nails left behind in the grave after the wood deteriorated. Wainman also died in 1610.

Continued research on the site will use genetics to confirm the familial relationship between West and Wainman, Horn said, and future archaeological and anthropological work will look to explain the importance of religion in early Jamestown.

The Smithsonian plans to host a symposium that will showcase the techniques used to make such discoveries. “This is a human story,” said Douglas Owsley, the head of the physical anthropology division at the Natural History Museum. “I think it is to our benefit to listen to what these bones can tell us about their lives.”


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