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]

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]

Endeavour, Captain Cook's Lost Ship, Might Have Been Found—Solving a Centuries-Old Mystery

Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The exact location of the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, which was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island 200 years ago, is considered one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries. Now, after a 25-year effort to pinpoint its remains among 13 sunken vessels, The Age reports that the Endeavour might have finally been identified.

British explorer James Cook left England on the Endeavour in 1768 headed for the South Pacific. He and his crew became the first European expedition to map the entire coast of New Zealand, and later, the first to reach Australia’s east coast. Along the way, they collected hundreds of previously unknown plant species, became the first Europeans to record a kangaroo sighting, and gathered evidence that would help disprove the existence of the long-speculated southern continent, Terra Australis, that hypothetically extended all the way up to the equator.

A replica of the 18th-century 'Endeavour' in the ocean
A replica of the Endeavour in 2004
Dennis4trigger, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After that three-year journey, Cook and his crew returned to England. Though Cook became a legend, the Endeavour didn’t receive the star treatment. The British Royal Navy used it to ferry supplies to and from the Falkland Islands for several years before selling it to a private buyer. The ship was renamed the Lord Sandwich, and was eventually put into service transporting German mercenaries to fight on Britain's side in the American Revolution.

That’s how the ship ended up in Rhode Island, where it was stationed as part of the Royal Navy’s fleet in Newport Harbor and used as a prison ship for captured American soldiers. When French reinforcements came to assist American revolutionaries in Rhode Island, the British decided to sink their ships rather than allow them to be captured, creating a blockade out of scuttled vessels to block the French from getting into the harbor. They sank 12 transport vessels and set another on fire. Over the ensuing years, locals and French forces took equipment from the wrecks, but it’s never been entirely clear what happened to the remains.

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project began to try to map and identify those remains starting in the early 1990s, and eventually figured out that the Lord Sandwich was the same ship as the HMS Endeavour. As the ship played a vital role in Australian history, the Australian National Maritime Museum then got involved with the project.

The two organizations have announced that they have lowered the number of potential wrecks that could be the Endeavour from 14 to five—and perhaps down to just one—by inspecting the area and measuring the wrecks against historic information about Cook's vessel. The researchers think the final resting place of the ship is located off the coast of Goat Island in Narragansett Bay, but to be absolutely certain, they’ll have to excavate the remains of the ship and examine its timbers. The researchers hope to have that work done by the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia’s Botany Bay—and his claiming of Australia as British territory—in 2020.

And there may be a battle over the remains. While the ship is considered a vital artifact of Australian history, the state of Rhode Island claimed ownership of all of the sunken ships in 1999, and they are overseen by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

[h/t The Age]

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