Archaeologists Search for the Graves of Jamestown's Elite

Dave Doody, http://historicjamestowne.org
Dave Doody, http://historicjamestowne.org

Jamestown, Virginia, was an ocean away from England's monarchy, but America's first permanent English colonial settlement still had its own ruling class. Members included John Rolfe, the English tobacco planter who married Pocahontas; George Yeardley, an early governor of the colony of Virginia; and Thomas West, the English nobleman who was also known as Lord De La Warr. (He served as the first governor of Virginia, and his Americanized title, "Delaware," became the name of the mid-Atlantic state, river, and bay.) Now, The Washington Post reports that archaeologists are examining human remains buried at Jamestown to see if any belong to elites like these figures.

Since 1994, a team of archaeologists from Preservation Virginia, a nonprofit historic preservation group, have been searching Jamestown's remnants for clues about its past. They launched the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeological Project to locate the purportedly eroded site of the settlers' original fort. Called the James Fort, it was built in 1607 by Captain John Smith and other settlers. It ended up containing four graves, including that of De La Warr's nephew.

Over the decades, the Jamestown Rediscovery Archaeology Project has located important buildings and discovered more than 1.5 million artifacts. But in recent years, the project's archaeologists have teamed up with anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution to excavate Jamestown's tiny churches, where high-status individuals were once interred.

The task is a challenging one: Historical records don't state where these bodies are located, and they were sometimes dug up and reburied. Experts think that there may even be several layers of burials beneath a church's floor.

Further complicating matters, this isn't the first time Jamestown's worship sites have been dug up. Archaeologists from the late 1800s and early 1900s performed their own searches, and even left what appears to be a tiny time capsule in the foundation of a 17th-century church. (Dating back to 1901, it was recently found in late October, according to the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily. It contained a letter, which had disintegrated and was thus unreadable.) But they also left plenty of damage in their wake, ranging from shovel cuts to bones to carelessly reburied remains.

Of particular interest to the team's archaeologists are the bones of West. He died in 1618 while at sea, and his remains were likely preserved in a barrel of wine or spirits and transported to Virginia. He's believed to have been the very first person to be buried in one of the settlement's early churches.

If one recently discovered skeleton—which appears to have belonged to a man of high status—doesn't belong to West, his bones might be located at the very bottom of the church grave layers. This hunt might sound akin to looking for needle in a haystack, but experts say that the nobleman might have been interred in a specially shaped coffin that was reserved for important people. Signifiers like these could make their quest easier.

To ID the remains of important Jamestown settlers, scientists will eventually compare DNA from excavated skeletons with the bones of known relatives. But only time, scientific analysis, and lots of careful digging will reveal the final resting places of West, Rolfe, and other historic figures.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Laser Scans Detect Hidden Buildings and Tunnels Beneath Alcatraz Prison

iStock.com/f8grapher
iStock.com/f8grapher

Isolated in the San Francisco Bay and surrounded by steep cliff faces, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary seemed like the most secure place to keep dangerous criminals in the mid-20th century. But it's recently come to light that every inmate on Alcatraz Island lived above a series of potential escape routes that predated the prison's construction, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

In a new study published in the journal Near Surface Geophysics, archaeologists reported their discovery of structures and artifacts beneath the Alcatraz prison yard, including underground buildings, tunnels, and ammunition magazines. Guided by historical maps, documents, and photographs, they used laser scanning technology and ground-penetrating radar to locate the subterranean fortress close to the surface.

The site dates back to the mid-19th century, when Alcatraz Island was used for military purposes. The same natural features that would later make Alcatraz an appealing prison also made it an ideal coastal fortification. Enough brick buildings were built there to house 200 soldiers and enough food was shipped in to feed them for four months.

But the fortification wasn't used for its original purpose for very long. It was transformed into the West Coast's official military prison during the Civil War, and in the 1930s, the government turned it into a federal prison. Instead of tearing down the forts and tunnels leftover from its military days, workers left them intact and built over them to save money. Archaeologists plan to investigate the underground structures further without disturbing the historic site.

Alcatraz Prison closed in 1963, so the underground tunnels no longer pose a security problem. Today the island is part of the U.S. National Park Service and is a popular tourist attraction.

[h/t San Fransisco Chronicle]

The Site Where Julius Caesar Was Assassinated Will Open to the Public in 2021

iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina
iStock.com/Largo di Torre Argentina

Besides being a sanctuary for stray cats, Largo di Torre Argentina in Rome is best known as the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed 22 times by assassins in 44 BCE. As the city's oldest open-air square, the spot is an important piece of Roman history, but it's fallen into disrepair. Now, Condé Nast Traveler reports that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen to the public following a $1.1 million restoration project.

The site includes four ancient temples, a medieval brick tower, and the ruins of the senate house where Caesar was murdered. About 20 feet below street level, it was excavated under the rule of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s, and has remained largely closed to the public since. Today, Largo di Torre Argentina is overgrown and accessible only to the feral cats that live there.

On Monday, February 25, Rome mayor Virginia Raggi announced that Largo di Torre Argentina will reopen in the second half of 2021. To get the site ready for the public, the city will add restrooms, install lights, and build walkways that allow visitors to explore the area. Stone ruins, some of which are stacked into piles, will be secured, and artifacts currently sitting in storage will be moved to a museum. The one area the project will avoid is the corner where the cat sanctuary is located.

Rome, of course, is filled with ancient ruins—some that residents weren't even aware of until recently. In 2014, a 2000-year-old Roman road was unearthed during the construction of a McDonald's.

[h/t Condé Nast Traveler]

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