photo by Jay Paul
photo by Smithsonian Institute, via Wikimedia Commons
photo by Jay Paul
photo by Jay Paul
Johann Theodor de Bry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons Wikimedia Commons
photo by Jay Paul
photo by Jay Paul
Twenty years ago this April, Kelso turned over the first shovelful of dirt at the site which is about 55 miles southeast of downtown Richmond, and almost immediately disproved the conventional wisdom that the 17th-century fort site had been lost to erosion and was under the James River. “Nobody thought it was there. They all thought I was making it up,” recalls the iconoclastic archaeologist. “Most people said we weren’t going to find anything. It was the opposite: an absolute time capsule.”
—Story by Richard Foster
Bill Kelso is accustomed to proving people wrong — and that includes himself.
The director of the archaeological recovery efforts at Preservation Virginia’s Historic Jamestowne, Kelso is world-famous for finding the long-lost site of the 1607 James Fort, where the first permanent English colony in the New World took root.
Twenty years ago this April, Kelso turned over the first shovelful of dirt at the site, which is about 55 miles southeast of downtown Richmond, and almost immediately disproved the conventional wisdom that the 17th-century fort site had been lost to erosion and was under the James River.
“Nobody thought it was there. They all thought I was making it up,” recalls the iconoclastic archaeologist. “Most people said we weren’t going to find anything. It was the opposite: an absolute time capsule.”
Kelso, an accomplished archaeologist, previously had led digs at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Poplar Forest estates. Then he worked for more than a decade to persuade the leadership of Preservation Virginia, which owns the fort site on Jamestown Island, to support an archaeological dig to prove that the fort site was still on dry land. From the very beginning, “I was finding pieces of pottery and pipe stems and musket balls. It was very clear that these were old enough and military enough to be from the fort.”
Two decades later, Kelso’s team has unearthed a treasure trove of hundreds of thousands of artifacts, including armor, weaponry and human remains. He uncovered the stains left behind by the rough logs that the settlers had placed upright in the ground to create the fort’s walls and palisades — the dimensions neatly matching up to historical records. And more recently, his team made international headlines for discovering definitive evidence of cannibalism occurring during the colony’s early days.
Kelso’s finds threaten to rewrite Plymouth Rock’s significance in the history books. In 1619, a year before the Pilgrims landed, the first representative government in the New World was already meeting in Jamestown. It was a port town with a population of 200 to 300 fueled by a booming tobacco industry from the plantations the colony had spawned along the James River.
“This is where America first began,” Kelso says. “The British Empire begins here. This is the first colony out of the British Isles, and it was worldwide by the beginning of the 20th century. … The earth was pretty well in their pocket.”
Kelso, 74, has received numerous plaudits for his work, including being designated a Commander of the British Empire in 2012 and receiving the J.C. Harrington Medal, the highest award from the Society for Historical Archaeology, in 2007. The Virginia General Assembly has passed multiple resolutions recognizing Kelso’s work. He personally led Queen Elizabeth II on a tour of the site in 2007 during Jamestown’s 400th anniversary celebration. Other notable visitors who have met with Kelso at the site have included President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, country singer Reba McEntire and movie star Colin Farrell, who portrayed Capt. John Smith in the 2005 Terrence Malick film about the founding of Jamestown, The New World.
Kelso is rugged, charismatic but quiet. He’s quick to joke about how all the honors haven’t exactly translated into riches.
The archaeological wonders found at Historic Jamestowne have been covered by almost every media outlet imaginable — including National Geographic, Time magazine, Smithsonian magazine and the New York Times, as well as numerous TV shows on PBS, CNN, Discovery Channel, History Channel, Travel Channel and more. One of the artifacts found on the site, a metal shipping tag imprinted “Yamestowne,” flew aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2007.
“The historical significance of this small piece of land out here is off the charts,” says Danny Schmidt, a senior staff archaeologist for Jamestown Rediscovery.
Yet, despite all that Kelso’s Jamestown Rediscovery team has found, the Historic Jamestowne dig continues to yield artifacts that surprise even Kelso.
For example, there’s Jane.
Jane is the name Kelso’s team gave to the unknown 14-year-old cannibalism victim whose butchered skull and leg bone they recovered in 2012. When the announcement was made last year at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History that Kelso’s team had found definitive proof of cannibalism from Jamestown’s Starving Time winter of 1609, it was an international media sensation; Archaeology magazine named it among the top 10 archaeological finds of 2013, ranking it alongside the discovery of the skeleton of Richard III below a parking lot in England.
Yet, until he found Jane, Kelso himself had always dismissed the contemporaneous accounts of cannibalism occurring at colonial Jamestown as wild exaggerations. “I’m converted now,” he says.
In his 2006 book Jamestown: The Buried Truth “the word [cannibalism] isn’t even in there,” says Kelso, who’s currently working on an updated edition. “To me, it seemed like the people that were writing about it had a political agenda with it. They were using it for shock value, either to discredit a governor or a leader or to get the [Virginia] Company to send them more supplies and just get their attention, to say, ‘Hey, look, you left us Englishmen in a situation where we’ve become savages.’ ”
As it turns out, the English weren’t great exaggerators.
Jane’s skull was found broken into many pieces in a cellar that had been filled in with other refuse from a trash pile, including broken pieces of a German Bartmann jug and the butchered bones of dogs and horses from the Starving Time, when all but 60 of the 500 colonists died from disease or starvation.
She almost certainly was butchered after death, Kelso says, and she may have been a victim of starvation herself. She was from a lower class, probably a maidservant among a group of hundreds of colonists who arrived in 1609, only to find that there had been a drought and there was little to no food available for the winter. “Suddenly, somehow there’s 300 more mouths to feed,” Kelso says. “She didn’t live long.”
The butcher made four tentative chops to her forehead before turning her over and eventually cracking open her skull to retrieve her brain. (The fact that the four forehead chops were made evenly with no evidence of the victim moving or defending herself is proof she was already dead, Kelso says.) Other knife marks indicate that the skin around her cheeks was sliced away.
“When you examine each individual, each skeleton can tell you a great deal of information about who each person was: not just their death, but their life as well,” says Douglas Owsley, division head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.
For example, Owsley says, he can tell who was a high-status individual, or not, by the lead in their bones because the gentry ate off pewter plates. (“They didn’t know they were killing themselves,” Kelso says.) Based on oxygen isotopes from drinking water, scientists can also determine if an individual was born in a particular region of England.
“It’s quite amazing,” Owsley says. “Most people don’t realize just how much you can learn from the human skeleton.”
Survival cannibalism of the already-dead wasn’t illegal, but it was frowned upon and probably wasn’t widespread, Kelso says. That said, one man was executed for killing his wife and salting her to eat later. (Kelso theorizes that the story is depicted on an amazing slate tablet his team recovered that contained various snippets of text, as well as drawings of colonists in Elizabethan dress and a cahow, a bird native to Bermuda.) Another “guy stole food, so they chained him to a post and let him starve to death. He’ll never do that again,” says Kelso.
“The story’s the story. If it’s grim, it’s grim, but I think it’s important,” he says. “It really comments on how close this colony was to [becoming] another lost colony.” In fact, the remaining 60 survivors were headed on a boat to escape Jamestown when they were met on the James River and ordered to turn around by Lord De La Warr, who had arrived with fresh men and a year’s supplies. Upon arriving at the colony, De La Warr ordered the place cleaned up and ramshackle buildings torn down. Kelso believes it was during this effort that the trash pile with Jane’s remains was used to fill in the kitchen cellar space where his team would find her bones more than 400 years later.
The Smithsonian’s Owsley has been assisting Kelso’s Jamestown Rediscovery team since 1996, when they brought him the skeleton nicknamed “J.R.” to examine. A male teenager, J.R. (for “Jamestown Rediscovery” but also a pun on “Who Shot J.R.?”) was shot in the tibia by a 70-caliber musket ball with buckshot. “The whole leg was practically blown off, so he would have bled to death pretty quickly,” Owsley says, matter-of-factly. (The discovery was the topic of an episode of the PBS documentary series Secrets of the Dead.)
More recently, the Smithsonian forensic anthropologist has been examining the remains of four high-status individuals Kelso’s team found buried under the chancel of the first church at Jamestown, the exact spot where Pocahontas married John Rolfe in April 1614. Kelso believes the remains include those of two captains and a knight, all of whom died during the early years of the settlement.
As for Jane, a forensic artist made a re-creation of what she could have looked like; the sculpture is on display beside her reconstructed skull in Historic Jamestowne’s museum of archaeological artifacts. She looks remarkably like actress Scarlett Johansson or the subject of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Considering her likeness, Kelso says, “We’ve done justice for her. And now she has a face and a name.”
Kelso’s “epitaph, of course, is going to read, ‘Jamestown, Jamestown, Jamestown.’ That’s been far and away the most important thing he’s done, but … [he has also had] a transformative influence on how the practice and craft of archaeology is done,” says Carter Hudgins, a professor of archaeology at Clemson University and former Kelso protégé who nominated Kelso for the Harrington Medal.
In his early work at plantations such as Carter’s Grove and Monticello, Kelso pioneered an archaeological method called open-air excavation. Instead of methodically opening small “windows” into the soil one at a time as had been the practice, Kelso’s teams would uncover much larger areas in order to consider the distribution of artifacts over a widespread field and better put in context how the site’s archaeological finds relate to one another and the landscape.
“Bill understands better than anybody else that the more you dig, the more you get to see,” Hudgins says. “For Bill, one of the things he taught to the folks who worked for him is that at a basic level, archaeology is a blue-collar sport: The harder you work, the more you get done and the greater the rewards.”
Kelso also excelled in landscape archaeology, recovering planting patterns for the gardens and orchards at Monticello, Hudgins says, and he’s a leading expert on the archaeology of plantation slavery.
Raised in Ohio, Kelso grew up reading about archaeological excavations of the Egyptian pyramids in National Geographic, “but I never thought I would be doing it. My main interest in life was sports.” He won a football scholarship to Baldwin Wallace College, where he was a running back and placekicker and studied history.
Kelso moved to Virginia to pursue his master’s degree in history at the College of William and Mary. He taught history and coached football for a few years at Williamsburg’s James Blair High School, while volunteering during the summers at archaeological digs led by Ivor Noël Hume, the chief archaeologist at Colonial Williamsburg, who would later become Kelso’s mentor and boss.
After landing his first job as an archaeologist in Georgia, Kelso earned his doctorate in history from Emory University. People are sometimes surprised to learn he doesn’t hold a formal degree in archaeology, but Kelso finds his education as a historian helpful “because most of what I do, I have to interpret by knowing the [historical] documents. It goes hand in hand.”
Schmidt remembers uncovering the remains of what appeared to be the skeleton of a young man with an arrowhead up against his femur. It sparked Kelso’s memory, and he retrieved a book with a report of an early 1607 skirmish between colonists and Native Americans. “Bill’s standing there reading to me, reading that three Virginia Indians were slain and only one English colonist was slain and it was a young boy, and I remember getting goose bumps. To be able to marry up the archaeology with the history like that is just remarkable.”
Kelso’s also an advocate for opening archaeology up to the public. When his team makes important finds, Kelso insists on showing them to on-site visitors instead of rushing fresh artifacts directly to the recovery lab. Every other week during the summers, Kelso personally leads a guided tour of the fort site.
“This is as close to time travel as we’re ever going to come,” says Schmidt, “and it’s pretty neat to be able to share that with the public.”
Schmidt has been working with Kelso since the first year of the Jamestown dig in 1994, when Schmidt was just 16 and volunteering after school. “I’ve been here more than half my life,” says Schmidt, now a married father of three boys. “I give these tours once a week to visitors and I joke that most of us have spent more time in this fort than any colonist ever did.”
Asked about his plans for the future, Kelso jokes that he’ll keep working at Historic Jamestowne until he’s one of the artifacts: “I’ll fall in the last hole and you can just throw the dirt on me.”
Turning serious, the former marathon runner says he has no plans for retirement: “I’m still very interested and excited about what we find [and] so far I’m in pretty good shape.”
Besides, there may be a whole new fort to unearth.
John Smith writes about the fort being extended after 1608 into a five-sided structure with palisades. From his research, Kelso theorizes that a mirroring triangular addition was added onto the 1607 fort, resulting in a fort that was shaped more like a diamond. If that’s true, the fort’s actual footprint could be double the size of the present 1607 James Fort area they’ve excavated, which is about the size of a baseball field. (And to put that in perspective, the entire early colonial town outside the fort stretched over about 22 acres and they’ve excavated less than 2 acres so far.) Kelso, says Schmidt, is “a visionary. He’s got a pretty amazing grasp of the site and where to be looking next.”
No contemporaneous layout of the fort exists; only historical records that described various buildings and events. Nevertheless “when [Kelso] says we’re going to find things, he pretty much always does. He’s got an amazing grasp of both the historical records and the lay of the land.”
They know about the remains of one building within the addition but don’t know what else they’ll find there. Schmidt is skeptical about Kelso’s diamond-shaped fort theory, but he does believe that the area in question merits examination. Hundreds of settlers, probably including Jane, are known to have camped outside the James Fort due to overcrowding when new settlers arrived in 1609, and they probably fortified the area to protect from Indian assaults.
Also, Kelso and Schmidt think a still-lost well from 1611 may be located within the addition. Some of the best artifacts they have retrieved have come from abandoned wells, which the settlers used as trash pits after the wells dried up or went bad, creating time capsules filled with artifacts that were better protected from the ravages of anaerobic organisms in the soil and more oxygen-rich environments.
They’re working under a timeline. Kelso figures archaeologists probably have a maximum of 20 years to rescue artifacts from the site before they’re in such bad shape that they’ll be unrecoverable. “It’s going to be gone eventually,” he says. “That’s another reason why we’re digging.”
“It’s more or less mindboggling how much is out there that we’ve found, and I’m sure there’s much more,” says Schmidt. “Year after year, we say at the end of the excavation season, ‘How could it possibly get any more interesting?’ and then the next year comes along and it proves to be more interesting. It’s truly beyond any of our wildest dreams when we started out here what we would find.”
Music: Henry Sims, "Tell Me Man Blues"; The Royal Conservatory of Music, "Concert Series, 2013"; Strung Out String Band, "Sandy River Belles" .
Voiceover: Brandon Fox
Art direction: Steve Hedberg
Editor: Jack Cooksey
Story by: Richard Foster
Production: Daniel Bivins
Audio assistance: Justin Vaughan
Photography by Jay Paul, Steve Hedberg and Daniel Bivins unless otherwise noted.
Our sincere gratitude to Dr. Kelso and his team at Jamestown Rediscovery for assisting us in this project.