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Jamestown Graves Shed Light on Early U.S. Settlers

  National Geographic Today
For full coverage of this story watch National Geographic Today Friday, April 6, in the United States at 7 p.m.

Archaeologists at Jamestown Island, Virginia, the first English settlement in the United States, announced Friday the excavation of 24 skeletal remains from an unmarked burial ground that could date back as early as 1607, providing an unprecedented look at the bleak conditions faced by early settlers.

sifting through fill

Excavator Ernelyn Marx sifts through the fill from a burial shaft with a quarter-inch (0.6-centimeter) screen.

Photograph by Kurt Stoppkotte/National Geographic Society

View the Jamestown photo gallery >>

Preliminary findings indicate that the burials, located some 200 yards (200 meters) from the settlement's church, were done hastily and haphazardly, possibly confirming the theory that the burial site contains the remains of "Starving Time" victims.

Starving Time describes the 1609-1610 winter, which only 60 out of the 215 settlers survived, according to William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA). The APVA is overseeing excavation of the Jamestown site.

"We expected to see signs of trauma and hastily dug burials, but we were surprised to find multiple burials and careless interments," said Kelso.

"We've found a couple of skeletons lying on their side with their legs crossed as if they were carelessly dropped into their graves," he added. "One was face down. This may mean that they were buried as quickly as possible because they had a contagious disease."

A Distant Burial

Archaeologists are also intrigued by the unusual location of the graveyard, distant from the fort site, placing the settlers in a more susceptible position for an Indian attack.

"We speculated that if they died of contagious diseases that they would want to be taken a distance from the church and town site. The other idea is that this is the burial ground for the lower classes," Kelso said. "While everybody was entitled to a decent burial according to the Church of England, which was the religious belief of the settlers, those with less means would maybe be relegated to this distant burial ground."

In addition to the skeletal remains, archaeologists excavated eight black glass buttons from a doublet jacket and a number of brass aglets that were probably used to fasten the same individual's trousers or hose.

These artifacts, an indication that the deceased were interred in their clothes, suggest that a quick burial was needed because of disease. According to English tradition, only priests and royalty were buried in clothes.

"In this case we don't think that it was because these were people of very high status," said Jamie May, archaeologist for the APVA and field supervisor for the burial project. "It was probably more a case of they just didn't want to deal with this person. We don't know whether or not there were contagious diseases going around or that they just wanted to get the person in the ground."

Digging Deeper

Ashley McKeown, a forensic anthropologist working on the project, will examine the skeletal remains in an attempt at more fully understanding aspects of the settler's individual lives, such as sex, age at death, ancestry, stature, diet, health, and possible causes of death.

"The ultimate objective is to learn as much as possible about the lives of these people and then incorporate that into the broader picture of the colonial area and the colonial Chesapeake," McKeown said.

The burial site, first identified by the National Park Service in the 1950s, is just now being methodically studied as part of the greater interpretation of this site for the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007.

Archaeologists hope to disinter about 50 individuals for analysis. Upon completion of the analysis, the APVA intends to reinter the remains with a memorial recognizing the earliest Jamestown settlers.

"This is physically a look at the population in a different way and the people who use these things will find more and more about them at a very human level," Kelso said. "That, I think, sort of ironically breathes life into the data we've collected, even though we are dealing with death."

The National Geographic Society helps fund the archaeological work reported in this article.

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