Jamestown archaeologists discover some of John Smith’s “lost town”
Famed English explorer Captain John Smith once wrote of a small town established around the Jamestown fort in the early 17th century.
His description mentioned up to 60 homes there. But its exact location has long been a mystery.
Archaeologists at Jamestown now think they’ve found part of it.
“I’m always amazed at what the site is revealing to us,” said David Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery. “Oftentimes, I think, ‘what's the most fantastical thing you can think about?’ And then it's 10 times more interesting than that.”
Givens said for the past three decades, the group has focused on the original 1607 fort of Jamestown.
The site of the first permanent English settlement in North America was chosen because it was far inland and surrounded by water on three sides, making it defensible against possible Spanish attacks, according to the National Park Service.
Visitors to Historic Jamestowne explore inside the fort’s triangular boundary, including the Memorial Church, the site of a graveyard and old cellars found underground.
The recent work expands just north. Tourists wandering through the attraction can amble by three new open excavation sites while the team digs further.
It all came about after officials started looking at the Jamestown Rediscovery logo in a new light.
The drawing is taken from an old map belonging to a man named Pedro de Zuñiga. He was a Spanish ambassador of the King James Court who sent a copy of Smith’s 1608 map of the area back to Europe.
The image shows the triangular boundaries of the fort, which align with what archaeologists have found.
It’s then topped with what looks like a flag, and that’s what historians long thought it was. But a former curator at Jamestown surmised it could be something else.
The team used ground-penetrating radar in recent years, which revealed the area assumed to be a flag could actually be an outline of Smith’s “lost town.”
“That town landscape is something we’ve always wondered about,” Givens said.
It likely only existed for a very short period of time between 1607 and 1610.
Colonists had to resort to cannibalism after a particularly brutal winter, he said, and started filling in various features of the fort.
They referred to it as a “town cleansing,” which historians think was to hide that controversial history.
A thick layer of clay in the new excavations shows that happened in the town area, too.
Confederate soldiers later surrounded the area with a moat and earthworks fort during the Civil War.
The archaeologists haven’t yet discovered any evidence of houses. What they believe they’ve found is a garden, Givens said.
They’ve also come across materials preserved for centuries underground, including glass, a big piece of iron and the brick outlines of a well.
Each revelation helps us learn more about the past, Givens said. The new garden site, for example, could yield centuries-old seeds ripe for genetic analysis.
The Jamestown team is racing to do the work in the face of frequent flooding from rising waters.
The spot is especially vulnerable — one of America’s most endangered historic sites, according to a list released by the National Trust for Historic Preservation last year.
Officials launched a “Save Jamestown” campaign that aims to raise millions of dollars to protect the site from climate change impacts.
When Givens started at Jamestown more than 20 years ago, a section of land near the current excavations was a patch of grass that officials had to mow. Now it’s a swamp that often floods.
“I often say we study the past, but we live in today,” Givens said. “So Jamestown is that sort of line in the sand about sea level rise, climate change and cultural resources. And how are we going to deal with that?”