Jamestown Colony Well Yields Clues to Chesapeake's Health

Willie Drye
for National Geographic News
June 30, 2006

A 17th-century well discovered last year in Jamestown, Virginia, could reveal rich details about the environmental health of the Chesapeake Bay 400 years ago, say archaeologists who are excavating the site.

The well may have been dug under the orders of Captain John Smith, whose disciplined leadership helped establish Jamestown as England's first permanent colony in the New World (related video: "The Real Jamestown, Beyond The New World").

"We are going under the idea that it is quite possibly John Smith's well," said Jamie May, an archaeologist with the nonprofit APVA Preservation Virginia.

The well is on the banks of the James River, near where the river flows into the Chesapeake (printable map of the Chesapeake Bay).

The site is a treasure trove of artifacts and "a window back into time," said APVA archaeologist Danny Schmidt.

Oysters and Salt

So far about a hundred thousand artifacts have been recovered from the well, and all of them date from around 1610 or earlier, Schmidt says.

Many of the artifacts were underwater for four centuries. They are very well preserved, because they were in an airtight environment.

Archaeologists have found leather shoes, surgical tools, buttons, and other objects that the 17th-century colonists used.

And some of the more mundane finds—oyster shells, seeds, and still-green tree leaves—could provide clues about how the bay's environment has changed since early colonial times.

"All we know from an environmental standpoint is that the Chesapeake Bay is not what it was 400 years ago," Schmidt said (read: "Chesapeake: Why Can't We Save the Bay?" in National Geographic magazine).

"There are quite a few avenues we can pursue to learn about things like water quality and oxygen content."

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