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400-Year-Old Well Reveals Secrets

Jamestown WellHistoric Jamestowne archaeologists have discovered a virtual time capsule of environmental and cultural data sealed inside an enormous well that may have been built by Capt. John Smith nearly 400 years ago, according to Dr. William Kelso, director of archaeology for the APVA Preservation Virginia.

Kelso said plants, wild and domestic seeds, pollen, parasites, insects, and food remains survive in wells below the water-table because of the oxygen-deprived atmosphere. “There is no other source for this kind of environmental data in such a preserved state, so precisely documented in time. It has the potential to tell us much about the environment in Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay region when Smith and other Englishmen established Jamestown in 1607,” Kelso said.

He noted that the watery environment also can preserve paper, leather, pewter, wood, fabric and other materials that decay more quickly in dry environments. “These objects are rarely found on sites this old, and the sheer volume of material that we will recover is going to be enormous. This well is more than four times the size of other wells that we’ve excavated from this time period. It’s about 6 ft. square and probably about 20 ft. deep,” he said.

Archaeologists recently unearthed a child’s leather shoe, surgical tools, nuts, seeds -– including a tobacco seed, buttons, and untarnished copper. In the shaft above the water table, they found a 1604 German Bartmann jug, weapons, ceramics, beads, and a great quantity of butchered animal bones and other food remains. They’ve also found oyster shells and other marine life including clam, mussel and scallop shells, fish bones, dorsal plates from huge Atlantic sturgeon, crab claws and barnacles.

Discovered this fall inside a corner of the fort site, the well was hidden beneath the brick ruins of a fireplace in a 1617 addition to the first Virginia governor’s house originally built in 1611. “After they abandoned the well, the colonists filled it with trash and then built over it, sealing everything inside it. But we know it is much earlier than 1617, and it may be the well built in 1608 or 1609 that Smith describes in his journal,” he said.

Currently, archaeologists are excavating just below the water table inside the well about 12 feet beneath the 17th-century ground level. The well has an intact wooden box that lines the shaft below the water level. The box is aligned with the fort wall and other fort structures. Kelso said a number of men with mining experience were in Jamestown at the time the well was built, which may explain the box-like construction technique. He thinks the well may extend as much as ten feet more into the water table. It is also as far away from the river as possible and still be inside the fort walls.

Kelso said they plan to excavate the well about one day a week to allow time for the staff to process the artifacts. The public is encouraged to watch as objects are unearthed, and nearby video monitors will enable them to see down into the well. They can also observe as dirt is screened for artifacts.

Because of the delicate nature of the objects submerged beneath the water table, a team of specialist consultants including zoo-archaeologists (animal bones), micro-botanical specialists (seeds and pollen), and entomologists (insects) will assist the staff in the recovery and analysis. Excavation will be completed in 2006, but the analysis will continue into at least 2007.

In anticipation of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the APVA Preservation Virginia launched the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological project in 1994 to identify and interpret the remains of the 1607 James Fort and town site. When archaeologists announced that they had discovered the fort site in 1996, they dispelled the long-held belief that the fort was lost to the James River. Since then, archaeologists have found the outline of the fort including the remains of palisades, bulwarks, buildings, pits and wells. In addition, they’ve uncovered and analyzed the remains of the last Jamestown statehouse. Over one million objects reflective of life at James Fort have been unearthed so far, as well as the burials of over 70 colonists including the remains of a high-ranking colonist, possibly Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, the principal organizer and administrator of the early Jamestown effort.

Open daily, to the public, Historic Jamestowne in Jamestown, Virginia, is interpreted by Colonial National Historical Park and the APVA Preservation Virginia. Visitors in this historic region of the state can share the moment of discovery with archaeologists, see artifacts in the Archaearium exhibition facility (opening May 13, 2006), tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church, take a walking tour with a park ranger through the original settlement along the scenic James River, and watch costumed glassblowers at the Glasshouse. Driving tours explore the lush natural setting where visitors regularly see bald eagles, heron, osprey, deer and other wildlife. Located at the western end of the Colonial Parkway near Williamsburg, admission is $8; youth 16 and under are admitted free. Call (757) 229-1733.

For more information visit www.historicjamestowne.org and www.jamestown1607.org

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