Last Updated 27 Jan 2021

Digging Up The Facts: Searching For Truth

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The search for historical truth is a complex endeavor. It requires collaboration, interrogation, and imagination. Historical archaeologists study modern and post-modern communities and events through the excavation of material artifacts in order to explain and contextualize the past. While the methodology of archaeology employs excavation as well as social and forensic science, the theoretical premise is based the notion that one can “know” a particular culture by means of an exhaustive collection and analysis of its material documents.

According to James Deetz in In Small Things Forgotten, historical archaeologists look at “material objects from the past” in order to “decode” the messages that these buried voices might tell (Deetz 4). They supplement and expand the work conducted by folklorists, sociologists, and anthropologists so as to reveal the manner in which earlier individuals lived, loved, and died (Deetz 5).

On rare occasions and under favorable cultural conditions, the findings of historical archaeologists serve as a corrective in that their work uncovers the “buried truths. ” William M. Kelso, one of the most important historical archaeologists of our time, recently led a major project in Jamestown, Virginia. This endeavor centered on the “unearthing” of the James Fort and other material artifacts. In 2006, Kelso’s groundbreaking work resulted in a published narrative of his archeological dig: Jamestown: The Buried Truth.

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Subsequent to the book’s publication, in 2007, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of Natural History in partnership with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the National Park Service sponsored an exhibit, Written in Bone, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. An archeological team, led by Kelso, began their journey by identifying a twenty-two and one-half acre site. Through the use of quilt methods and excavation, they collected and examined the soil composition uncovering numerous seventeenth-century artifacts.

Perhaps his greatest find was the remaining portion of the James Fort wall believed to have been destroyed by the James River. Kelso’s work “proved” that this could not have occurred for he unearthed the walls, interior structures, pits, and nearly one half million objects. Although his fascination with the James Fort reaches back four decades, Kelso’s diligence and skills as both archeologist and historian led him “literally to the soil” and, in so doing, he established a basis for a major revision of the colonial history of Virginia. Through the use of blueprints, CT scans, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR),

Mitochondrial DNA testing, and skeletal analyses, Kelso confirmed, and in 2002, uncovered a “gable-lidded coffin” believed to have been that of Captain Bartholomew Gosnold previously buried under a pit on the west wall of the Fort. Although unable to confirm that the skeleton in the coffin was Gosnold’s remains through calcium traces and dental analysis, a captain’s leading staff was buried with him. The staff along with “wood stains in the soil and the patterns of nails” suggests that he was a significant leader in the founding of Jamestown (Kelso 142).

Kelso’s discovery of the remains of the James Fort, constructed in the early seventeenth-century, raised new and important questions about extant historical interpretations regarding the people of Jamestown scholarship that, for the most part, has been based solely on the written documentary record. Gosnold’s buried but “well preserved pelvis” allowed forensic anthropologist, Douglas Owsley, to recently conclude that the “five- foot, three-inch European man died in his mid-to late thirties” (Kelso 142). Kelso’s work provides evidence of how Gosnold lived and died.

In addition, Kelso and the National Geographic Society received permission from the Church of England to examine the buried remains of Gosnold’s sister, Elizabeth Gosnold Tinley, buried in All Saint’s Church in Shelly and whose remains, after DNA testing, was determined to be inconclusive as to her biological relationship to the Captain (Kelso 155-56). Kelso’s uncovering of what remains of the James Fort contradicts assertions that the colony of Jamestown had failed because transplanted Englishmen simply refused to work or lacked the wisdom and ingenuity to be successful.

In addition, Kelso, through his own “dig” for the truth, proved them false. The early settlers had been constant laborers and the James Fort had not been completely lost to the river. Kelso employed forensic science and anthropological data to determine erosion and unusual indentations in the soil. Kelso’s methods showed the limitations of utilizing written documents exclusively as a way of interpreting the past. According to Kelso, “the soil yielded a new understanding of the early years of Jamestown; a new picture of its settlers … a new story of the interdependence between the Virginia settlers and the Virginia Indians” (Kelso 7).

Kelso is not alone in utilizing an interdisciplinary approach. If we consider the founding and establishment of Virginia and Maryland, colonies that were constantly engaged in a border dispute, we can see certain patterns of development which the documentary record supports. But the documents do not show us the material items early colonists used such as the houses, tools, and weapons. While the archaeologist needs history to contextualize and identify patterns for the purpose of accuracy, the historian makes a more compelling case by incorporating material artifacts as a significant element of his or her analyses and interpretation.

One might agree with Deetz who argues that the “documentary record and archaeological record complement each other” (Deetz 11). His examinations of the manner in which colonial people, black, white, and brown, in the Chesapeake lived and died provide a telling example of the interrelationship between historical methods and archaeological interpretation. In 1609 the London Company loaded the colonists in three ships and, in 1607, they arrived at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay.

Ordered by the Crown to seek a more inland region so as to better protect themselves from attacks by sea, the colonists settled farther up the James River near what would later become Richmond and Manchester. Jamestown, founded in 1607, provided protection from foreign attacks but was an unsuitable location due to poor drinking water, poor hunting ground, and farming. In addition, Native American attacks were frequent and unpredictable. Ill prepared and unable to sustain themselves, many of the colonists died from disease, starvation, and from warfare with the indigenous population.

With the arrival of Captain John Smith, as the story goes, the colony had its first chance at success. As a result of his leadership, historians argue, the colony sustained itself during the early years. In 1609, after Smith had returned to England, a drought severely limited colonial trade with England. In addition, unfavorable weather from 1609-1610 led to what has been described as “the starving time. ” By 1610 over half of the population had died or was gravely ill. John Rolfe, who arrived in 1612, introduced two types of tobacco seeds to the colony: Orinoco and Sweet Scented.

The success of these seed varieties provided a cash crop and a lucrative import item for the mother country. In addition, Rolfe’s marriage to Pocahontas, daughter of Chief Powhattan, in 1614, offered a relative measure of peace allowing for the use of more land to cultivate the soil depleting tobacco crop. In 1619 nearly one hundred women were brought to the colony as well as twenty Africans, initially as indentured servants and ultimately perpetual slaves. By 1632 Jamestown would be linked to the York River, the Middle Plantation, and later Williamsburg.

It would become a thriving colony of landed gentry, small farmers, landless whites, displaced Natives, and enslaved Africans. Deetz offers a provocative discussion about African American dwellings, particularly the shotgun house which he considers the “most explicitly African vernacular architectural form to be found in America… (Deetz 215). For Deetz, this structure shows clear signs of West African dwellings for “wherever Archaeologists find the shotgun house they find “evidence” of the viability of the African tradition in African American material culture” (Deetz 217). At the same time, Barbara J.

Heath in her Hidden Lives: the Archaeology of Slave Life at Poplar Forest tells how excavators were able to determine soils connected with cellars, layers under buildings, as well as small objects buried adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s retreat home southwest of his Monticello plantation. From the Poplar Forest slave quarters site, Heath and her crew obtained artifacts by “[screening] all soil from the site through one-quarter-inch hardware cloth” (Heath 32). They also found root cellars believed to have been the location where slaves stored or hid personal and contraband items (Heath 37).

After three periods of controlled excavating, Heath was convinced that they had “uncovered the remains of a slave settlement” (Heath 31). Soil stains, seeds, tools, and bone fragments recovered from one site revealed the extent to which Africans lived under the restrictions and limitations of slavery in colonial America (Heath 67). Virginia and Maryland were the first colonies to utilize African slave labor on American soil. Unlike Virginia, however, Maryland established slavery at the time of its founding settlement at St. Mary in 1634.

But much like Virginia, Maryland transitioned from the indentured servitude to slavery by exploiting Native Americans and then Africans who cultivated tobacco and rice while others labored as skilled carpenters or blacksmiths. By 1664 slavery was perpetual in Maryland, meaning that the children assumed the status of the mother from cradle to grave. Although a colony established for Catholics, Maryland was also a place for Puritans to worship where the primary incentive for settlement was not the acquisition of wealth and status but for the purpose of religious freedom.

Still, the increased numbers of Africans forced into the ‘New World” via the transatlantic trade allowed for the development of a distinct African culture on the American landscape. Once in the Chesapeake, colonists altered their views about what was possible in light of the large amounts of available land. Many became small self sufficient or large landowners within a community that was widely dispersed with few urban centers. They were dependent on agriculture and the export of tobacco that required slave labor for its long-term success.

Maryland and Virginia used the head-right system, and during the initial landing in Maryland colonists traveled with their wives unlike Virginians who were, for the most part, single men. Marylanders also brought their indentured servants and as a result, the Chesapeake region evolved into an area defined by tobacco and slaves. The condition of enslaved and free blacks contributed to a distinct culture as Africans in America adapted to and transformed their environment. Well into the eighteenth-century Africans were exported directly from the African coast.

The process of Americanization was not fully possible during this period because the colonists themselves did not have a clear sense of what it meant to be an American. Their colonial identity was seen through the prism of Great Britain. The mercantile system tied the colonists economically, politically, and culturally and many of the landed gentry saw themselves as part of a colonial aristocracy or as transplanted Englishmen. The ideology of Americanization must include resistance and assimilation.

For example, the presence of cellars, according to Heath’s description, allowed for storage of items that may have been private or forbidden by the master. The existence of cellars represent material evidence of personal freedom within the confines of slavery. The process of Americanization is one that has been discussed by many scholars. Some historians argue that when African Americans were brought by ship and, later, in chains they acculturated and assimilated and, in so doing, became something totally different and uniquely American. Kelso, Deetz, and David A.

Price in Love and Hate in Jamestown argue that Africans in America created something new but not something unrecognizable. Blacks created something that was at once African and American. The ground was both common and uncommon situated on a shared landscape. Leland Ferguson’s Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America 1650-1800 shows that the South Carolina low country, a region defined by gang labor and rice cultivation, received a constant supply of blacks from West Africa and that through language and custom they were able to sustain a clear cultural connection to Africa even as they created their own Africa in America.

Whether it be the shotgun house of Virginia, Jope’s arrival in Virginia with twenty slaves, or the pottery found at Jefferson’s Poplar Forest, “American democracy and American slavery put down their roots within weeks of each other,” processes that developed and changed over time (Price 194). Accuracy in the interpretation and management of written documents and material objects is a complicated task.

A primary document, an item, written, visual, or material, from the period, may provide important details about a person or event as well as context but it cannot provide empirical evidence. An artifact that has been excavated can show how an object was used, how it was made, and the possible status of its maker or user. The quality of the object can speak volumes about the values of the culture or community.

When both types of documents are used, material and written, the participant observer walks away with a rich, more detailed and contextualized historical experience which, in most instances, brings the curious historian and the diligent archaeologist closer to that elusive thing called truth. Kelso and Heath used archaeology and history to get at the facts. Price, on the other hand, relied on the letters of John Rolfe, census, and government records. All of the previously mentioned scholars were trying to find out what “really” happened.

They were excavating for the facts in order to arrive at the truth. Heath’s story was “woven,” Kelso performed an “autopsy of America” (Kelso back cover blurb), Leland found commonality on “uncommon ground, Deetz listened to the soil, and Price combed the records. Heath is correct in her assertion that “human experience cannot be recovered from the detritus of everyday life. Yet even a partial story opens a fascinating window into the past, creating new questions and raising fresh questions” (Heath 3). Clearly all of the scholars were successful in digging up the facts for truth’s sake.

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