Stones and Bones

In the basement of the largest of the mud buildings built by the Jamestown colonists starting in 1607, archaeologists stumbled on a mystery. Postholes suggested that there had been a small room under the wooden stairs, while charcoal on the floor plus clay walls that had turned red from heat indicated a fire had once burned there. But there was no evidence of a flue. Stumped by why anyone would be so foolhardy as to have roaring flames in an unventilated space, the researchers then remembered something from the writings of John Smith, who for a time led the Jamestown colony.

Smith described putting an Indian in a “dungeon” to make his brother return a stolen pistol by dawn the next day—or face execution. By the time the brother returned with the pistol, however, the captive was unconscious. The brother furiously accused Smith of double-crossing him, but Smith offered him a deal: if he would promise to never again steal firearms, he would restore the brother to life. A stiff drink did the trick—and the archeology suggests how Smith brought the Indian back from the dead: the captive had been knocked unconscious by carbon monoxide poisoning from the unventilated fire, a state that can sometimes be reversed with a liquid stimulant.

On May 13, it will be 400 years since three English sailing vessels dropped anchor on the shores of a small island in the James River and 104 colonists stepped onto what is now Virginia. Once the colonists (and the Indians they met, fought and lived beside) took their memories to their graves, the only records of what became the first successful English colony in the New World were the written records left by some of the survivors. But the journals and other documents are sketchy, ambiguous and, on some points, in conflict. Written by what archeologist William Kelso calls “interested parties,” such as John Smith, they “have told us a great deal,” he says. “But eyewitness accounts are sometimes distorted, which is why the archeological record is so important: it can be a more objective record.”

Excavations at Jamestown, begun in earnest in 1994, have unearthed the remains of the original triangular fort (which historians thought had been swallowed by the river) and more than 1 million artifacts, ranging from coins and crucibles to pottery shards, armor and helmets. Together they tell a richer story than the usual dismal and simplistic one in the history books. (Excavations at the site of Pocahontas’s village are the subject of a NOVA episode  on most PBS stations on May 8.) “We’ve turned up more evidence than anyone expected,” says Kelso, “and it’s given us a new understanding of the settlers’ lives and their interactions with the Virginia Indians.”

By 1617 the original fort had been expanded to a town of three or four acres, the excavations show, with four buildings inside the walls of the fort (the archaeological team calls them the barracks, the quarter and the rowhouses) and a factory outside that was used for storage and to trade with the Indians. Inside the footprint of the fort, archaeologists have found more than 200 Indian arrow points and, more intriguingly, flakes used to produce them from a stone. “This tells us that an Indian was producing points inside the fort itself,” says Kelso. A well-preserved reed mat like that Powhatan’s people used was found in the fort as well, more evidence that the relationship between the Englishmen and the Indians was much closer than surviving documents reveal. “They were not mortal enemies,” Kelso says. “Some Indians apparently lived inside the fort, working with or for the colonists.”

Written records are unclear about why so many settlers died at Jamestown. Starvation took a huge toll, as did disease. But an account by one of the leaders of Jamestown, William Strachey, also refers to poisoned well-water. Excavations have turned up a well as old as the settlement, and tests showed the water was neither brackish nor otherwise polluted, as Strachey claimed. Why was he wrong, or lying? Kelso suspects that leaders of the struggling colony wanted to blame some of the deaths on their watch on factors other than the food shortage—which they should have prevented—and poisoned drinking water seemed like a good scapegoat.

Smith, Strachey and other eyewitnesses pulled no punches in describing the “starving time” during the winter of 1609-1610. Archaeological finds, though, show just how brutal a time it was. In a pit under the barracks, Kelso’s team found bones of poisonous snakes, butchered horses, rats, cats and dogs, a desperation diet. On other points, however, Smith shaded the truth. He wrote that only 60 of 500 settlers survived the starving time, but archeological evidence shows that the colony then numbered 215—making only 60 survivors tragic enough, but less than the enormity Smith claimed. “By making it seem worse, he was probably trying to impress London with how bad things were so they would send more supplies,” says Kelso. “It was a fund-raising ploy.” Smith also grumbled that the colonists were all “gentlemen” who refused to do physical labor. “But we found postholes, cellars, artifacts and other evidence of the settlers working hard,” says Kelso. “So Smith’s is more of a political statement, an attempt to assign blame and explain why Jamestown had such problems.”

Jamestown still fascinates because, as Kelso wrote in his 2006 “Jamestown: The Buried Truth,” “the American dream was born on the banks of the James River.” It was almost still born. The colonists suffered drought, starvation, disease, political chaos and other turmoil that threatened to make Jamestown a dismal failure. All the more reason, then, to be suspicious of the writings of the leaders who almost let it all slip away. Stones and bones, on the other hand, don’t lie.