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Dig Into Past Unearths Legendary Fort

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Archeologists say they have found the remains of the first permanent English settlement in America--the fort at Jamestown Island, Va.--a nearly 400-year-old structure that was long thought lost to history.

Discovery of the structure, a fort built in 1607, would be among the most important archeological finds in American history if confirmed by further digging and research.

“From this tiny isolated island evolved our political institutions, our language, our commerce and much of our culture,” said archeologist William Kelso, who led the project for the Assn. for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. “No other American site predates Jamestown in national historical significance.”

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Virginia Gov. George F. Allen said simply: “We have discovered America’s birthplace.”

The dig has unearthed lines in the soil, a palisade trench, post holes and a network of drainage ditches--all in a pattern consistent with what is known about the structure, a distinctive-looking triangle-shaped fort that measured 420 feet by 300 feet by 300 feet, Kelso said.

Archeologists and others are confident that the discovery is indeed the fort, said Ken Stroupe, Allen’s press secretary. All research and tests on items from the site support the team’s conclusions, and so far no one has challenged the authenticity of the find, he said.

For more than 100 years historians have assumed that the fort vanished beneath the James River, a theory that has discouraged archeologists from digging at the site. The National Park Service led a dig with the preservation association some years ago but little was found.

More than two years ago, the association, which has owned the most historic 22 1/2 acres of the 1,600-acre island since the late 1800s, hired Kelso to direct another dig in hopes of finding artifacts in preparation for the 400th anniversary of the settlement in 2007.

There was also some small hope that his team of nine archeologists, 100 college students and local volunteers would find the fort itself.

On April 4, 1994, his first day on the job, Kelso uncovered a piece of broken pottery. The shard matched pottery he had seen only weeks before in Portsmouth, Britain, that had been salvaged from an English ship called the Mary Rose, which sank off the English coast in 1545.

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To date, in addition to the fort, the team has uncovered more than 100,000 artifacts, including a soldier’s helmet, a breastplate of armor, jewelry, a sword, clay pipes, coins and the grave of an early settler--a man in his 20s who had been shot in the leg.

Jamestown was settled in 1607 when three ships carrying 100 men and four boys landed at the site, only to face disease, starvation, inclement weather and hostile natives. Fifty-one died within six months, and only 38 had survived by the eighth month of settlement. Those men were saved by the disciplined leadership of Capt. John Smith.

Smith, according to a mixture of history and legend, was ambushed by Algonquin natives and carried back to Powhatan, the Algonquin chief, at Werowocomoco. The chief, impressed with Smith’s ivory-and-glass pocket compass, welcomed him, fed him and then prepared to have him killed.

But Pocahontas, Powhatan’s 11-year-old daughter, covered Smith’s body with her own, pleaded with her father and persuaded him to spare Smith’s life.

The story is dubious, but it has become one of America’s most enduring.

In following years, Jamestown became the site of the first elected assembly in North America and the home of the first commercial venture in the English-occupied New World, Allen said, calling it “the source spring of American democracy.”

The preservation association’s dig, called Jamestown Rediscovery, has cost about $700,000, with more than half of the funds coming from the state of Virginia. The federal government paid $190,000 of the cost through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Support also has come from organizations like the National Geographic Society and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which supplied X-ray equipment typically used to search for cracks in space vehicles. The equipment was used by archeologists at Jamestown to look past corrosion and reveal the fine details of artifacts.

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