A team of Smithsonian researchers has been studying the remains of four men discovered in Jamestown, Virginia, the site of England’s first successful colony. Two years of forensic detective work revealed their probable identities—but the biggest mystery is a sealed silver box found in one of the graves.
The bodies’ burial at the Jamestown church site indicated high status, which has been confirmed by the findings of the investigatory team. The men’s bones held evidence of a high-protein diet though the colony suffered years of privation and famine, including a dire period known as the “Starving Time,” where cats, dogs, mice and even human flesh was consumed.
Photo: Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation
Further cementing the social status of the buried men is the presence of lead in their remains. Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History, explains:
If you come from a high-status household you’re going to have greater exposure because of where it comes from - pewter and fancy glazed ware. Pewter in this early time period was something for display but it leaches lead into the food you’re eating off the plate.
Pewter cooking ware was for the wealthy, and the two of the bodies, identified as Sir Ferdinando Wainman, a cousin of Virginia’s governor, and Captain William West, the governor’s uncle, contained the most elevated levels of lead. The other bodies are likely Rev. Robert Hunt, the first Anglican minister in America, and early expedition leader Captain Gabriel Archer. Rev. Hunt’s body faced West, towards the people that he served; but it is Captain Archer’s grave that intrigued researchers the most, as it contained an completely unexpected object.
A small, sealed silver box, hexagonal in shape and etched with the letter “M,” was discovered on top of Captain Archer’s coffin. The box has not been opened for fear of damaging its contents, but scans show that it contains seven fragments of bone and pieces of a lead ampulla, which would have been used to hold holy water, blood or oil. Researchers have identified the box as Roman Catholic reliquary—an extremely surprising find in an Anglican colony at a time when tensions between Catholics and Anglicans were at a fever-pitch.
Photo: Smithsonian Institute
“It’s the most remarkable archaeology discovery of recent years,” says James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, the group leading the dig at the church site. (The church, long since gone to ruin, is famous for holding the wedding of the Powhatan Pocahontas to colonist John Rolfe in 1614.)
Research has revealed that Captain Archer’s Catholic parents were persecuted for their faith back in England. It’s possible that their son maintained the religion of his birth in secret. But who would have buried him with the Catholic relic? Was Archer’s religion openly known? Did others in the colony hold the heretical faith? The Washington Post reports:
Archer was not known to be Catholic. But his parents in England had been “recusants,” Catholics who refused to attend the Protestant Anglican Church, as required by law after the Reformation.
Horn wondered: Was Archer a leader of a secret Catholic cell? In 1607, George Kendall, a member of the settlement’s governing council, was executed as a Catholic spy, according to Jamestown Rediscovery, and Horn said Tuesday, “I’m beginning to lean more to the Catholic conspiracy.”
Captain Archer. Photo: Donald E. Hurlbert
The box itself is a further mystery. Examination shows that it is made from non-English silver, originating from Continental Europe decades prior Jamestown’s 1607 founding. Horn believes that the reliquary “was sacred, public,” considering the its size and the presence of so many bones; private worship items were much smaller—locket-sized, meant for personal use. The M silver box would have been an object intended for veneration.
Relying on X-rays, the box’s contents appear to show human bones, and plastic copies have been rendered via 3D printing for further study. There are no plans to open the mysterious box, though it will go on occasional display to the public.
The untold stories and newfound possibilities of Jamestown are exciting, and bound to spark further interest in the colonial site. The work of the archaeologists and scientists have combined to furnish a tale that armchair historians like me can’t stop reading about. Further excavation of the Jamestown site is planned, though it’s a race against time: the dig is under threat of rising sea levels and could be flooded by the end of the century, taking its secrets to a far deeper grave.
Update: You can check out the whole Jamestown site in 3D. The Smithsonian tells us: “Our 3D digitization team worked with the Museum’s world-renowned forensic anthropologist to fully document the site in 3D. You can explore the entire site, each individual grave, and that mysterious ‘possibly secret Catholic’ box—basically play forensic anthropologist from your desktop or mobile phone.” My day is made.