When a place reaches as far back as Jamestown, the dirt can teem with secrets.
Nearly every time archaeologists open a hole on this ancient stretch of riverfront land, they find a jumbled puzzle of subterranean clues reflecting every change that has taken place here since the first English colonists landed in 1607.
But after nearly 20 years of unearthing riddles, Jamestown Rediscovery director William M. Kelso and his team are so practiced they can distinguish a posthole from a 1890s barbed-wire fence from one dug by a settler for an early James Fort structure. They can also tell the scraping of Civil War shovels from those of 18th and 19th-century plows — not to mention the foundation trenches for the 1690s church tower and the 1907 memorial church.
That’s why no one here was surprised when — shortly after the 2012 field season began in April — a small stain in the soil led to the remains of an artifact-filled structure that could be part of an early storehouse.
It’s also why they’re so eager to explore the swarm of new features unearthed near the church tower since mid-June, when 11 students joined the dig for its summer field school.
“Whatever happened here stayed here — and it’s still detectable if it was deep enough,” says Kelso, whose team first uncovered the landmark fort in 1996 — more than 150 years after it was thought to have been lost to the James River.
“So every time we open up another square we’re usually looking at the pieces of a pretty complex story.”
With about 80 percent of the triangular 1.1-acre fort site explored, Kelso and his crew have not only rediscovered much of the lost landscape of America’s first permanent English settlement but also rewritten many long-held misconceptions about the colonists who lived within its walls.
In case after case, the unearthed clues point to an endeavor that was far more enterprising and complex than many previous historians believed from the documentary evidence alone, especially in the settlers’ determination to find ways to mine the resources of the New World for profit.
That discovery seems likely to be confirmed by the story unfolding in a discolored patch of soil first found near the center of the fort in 2001 and enlarged into the footprint of a large, L-shaped cellar since the dig resumed in April.
Dating to the first years of the fort, the structure has yielded such provocative artifacts as a pocket-sized ivory sundial and butchered dog and horse bones that may be associated with the so-called Starving Time of 1609-10. Like virtually all the other early buildings found so far, moreover, its orientation reflects an orderly, well thought-out plan determined by the triangular lay-out of the palisade walls.
It also seems linked to a 1608 storage building and a central well that were discovered and carefully excavated several years ago.
“What we think we have is part of a large, 120-foot-long storehouse complex that the settlers kept adding onto because they needed more room,” Kelso says.
“We don’t know what they were storing there. But the fact that they invested so much time and energy in building it shows that they needed extra space for what they were doing.”
To the southeast, the archaeologists have opened up nearly 10 more squares, much of it in an area that once appeared to have little archaeological potential.
Yet despite being scraped down dramatically for the construction of a Civil War earthwork and road in 1861, the soil spanning the space between the 1690s church tower and a 1909 statue of John Smith has proved surprising productive over the past two years, yielding such landmark discoveries as the lost footprint of the settlement’s 1608 church.
“The first few years we were out in this yard, everything we found was so shallow — so scraped away — that we knew a lot of it was gone,” Kelso says.
“But what we’ve discovered is that the colonists dug so deeply into the subsoil that a lot of evidence survives where we didn’t expect it.”
In just a few weeks, the archaeologists have uncovered the remains of a previously unexplored portion of the east palisade wall as well as a jumble of later features, including signs of a barbed-wire fence and church tower excavations that date to the 1890s.
They’ve also uncovered a trench that a young Kelso made while assessing the tower’s foundation in 1971.
Hidden within this confusion of colors and textures is at least one early posthole that could be the sign of a fort-period building aligned with the east wall.
“It’s the right color. It’s the right mixture of clay. So there’s something there that looks pretty good,” Kelso says.
“And if the lay-out of the fort holds true to form, this is about where we should find another structure.”