The Regional Review

Volume V - Nos. 2 & 3

August-September, 1940

Archeology and History Work Hand in Hand


One of the most universal characteristics of the human race is an interest in the past. This is attested by the fact that in the most primitive human groups myths and legends telling of the origin of the earth and of the first human ancestors of the group exist and are cherished from generation to generation. With the birth of civilization, speculation gave way to study, and history was born---the recounting of and explaining of the incidents in the life of a nation and the world.

In recent years, as history has become studied generally, people have taken an interest in the places associated with the great men and events in the past of their nation. One important outcome of this interest has been the establishment by the National Park Service of the many historical parks and monuments. Jamestown Island, the site of the first permanent English settlement in America, long has been significant to Americans, and a part of it was logically acquired and set aside by the Service for study, development, and preservation.1 But at Jamestown it was obvious that the conventional historical approach could not tell the entire story. Too many of the records had been lost or destroyed; and too much of the story never had been committed to writing in the first place. So a different research method---archeology--- was called upon.

house foundations
Above is shown one of the many house foundations which have been uncovered on Jamestown Island. Below: Some of the glass bottles and pottery objects after their restoration in the archeological laboratory. pottery and bottles

Archeology is a relatively new science. Since the beginning of the study of history, historians have run against an almost impassable barrier, the barrier that stands where writing or recording in some way first was developed. What had not been put on stone, clay, papyrus, or paper could not be learned; and the early students of the past could only guess at the meanings of the remains which we now know to have been left by prehistoric peoples. But within the last 100 years archeology has been pushing through that barrier. From soil strata and potsherds, ruined buildings and cemeteries, archeologists have reconstructed the story of the past so that today the school child who begins the study of world history starts far back of the first written records.

As archeology has developed it has shown that the barrier of written records stands not only at a point in time, but also at a point in culture. In other words, there has never been a time or place when society had written down everything that happened to it. For instance, Roman archeology has supplemented Roman history, not only in the period before Romans started recording their history, but likewise within the historic period, by supplying data concerning the development of art and architecture and the details of domestic life of the time which the Romans did not take the trouble to record.

In spite of the fact that history and archeology are related so closely and are working to the same end, revealing and explaining the facts of the past of the human race, they have not always come together and applied their techniques consciously and simultaneously to a specific problem. Within each field there is a fairly well defined feeling that certain problems and periods belong to the historian and certain others to the archeologist. At Jamestown, however, the problem is being approached differently. Here historical research and archeological research are working hand in hand to recover the story of the years from 1607 to 1699, the period in which Jamestown was the leading community of the colony of Virginia. The logic of the program is readily apparent. Records of this first century of English colonization of America are meagre when compared to those of later periods. The early settlers were too busy wresting a living from the wilderness to spend much time in recording their adventures for the edification and entertainment of posterity. Of the records that were made, only a part are available, many having been destroyed or lost. Moreover, even as today, people seldom left permanent descriptions of their houses, their furniture, and the dishes from which they ate. Many of these missing facts now can be supplied by archeological investigation.

Although the work is known as the Jamestown archeological project and the problem is being approached primarily as an archeological one, documentary research has an important place in the program. A map, a deed, or possibly even a brief court record may be of greater value in determining facts about a building than would a season's excavating. The important thing is that the historian and the archeologist are working together, planning their research with specific problems in mind, and using the results of both kinds of research to further the uncovering of the story. As each single tract or building is considered for study, preliminary historical research is carried out as the first step. These documentary data serve as a guide for directing the course of the excavations and a key for interpreting the archeological remains. As results accrue from the excavating, certain of the documentary data take on new meanings which, in turn, provide more intelligent direction for further archeological research. There is accumulating, by this process, an ever-expanding body of knowledge made possible by the combined activities of several fields of specialization. This can be illustrated by a brief review of one fairly simple example of research.

It long had been noted and had become a matter of concern to persons interested in the preservation of historic sites that Jamestown Island was being washed away rapidly by the waters of the James River. Early in the present century, through the efforts of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, a substantial shore protection was constructed at the upper end of the island by the United States Army, and in recent years the National Park Service has continued the sea wall along the entire limits of the old town. Numerous historians have pondered over the amount of destruction that had taken place. An old cypress tree, standing today some 260 feet from the shore, marks the position of the shoreline at one period, but there has been no documentary evidence which, alone, would locate exactly the extent of the land during the seventeenth century.

For a number of reasons, and particularly to aid in locating and identifying land features and early buildings, it is important that the position of the seventeenth century shoreline be known. Colonel Samuel H. Yonge estimated that at the western tip of the island there had been a recession of 482 feet, based on an assumed annual rate of two feet a year until 1860 and four feet a year thereafter.2 Such an estimate, although later proved to be accurate, was not satisfactory for the purpose of locating exactly the property lines and other early remains. It was up to the archeologist to try his hand.

map of western tip of Jamestown Island
(click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Naturally there was no hope that any sort of evidence could be found beyond the present shore because the currents and tides would have destroyed or shifted even the most substantial remains. But the archeological excavations made during the summer of 1939 did provide evidence which permits the locating of a considerable portion of the old shoreline. A patent to William Sherwood, dated April 20, 1681, reads in part:

. . . beginning at James River at the head of a great slash Issuing into the back River and down the sd slash East 1-2 a point Southerly Eighteene Chaines thence North 3/4 point Easterly fower Chaines to the back River Marsh and up the same to a Markt persimon tree under blockhouse hill point thence under the said Hill West six Chaines to James River and downs it againe to the first Mencon'd slash including eight acres & thence againe down the said slash forty three Chaines to Mr Richard James Land and along it South twenty three Chaines to a branch of Pitch & Tarr swamp thence up the said branch to James River and Up the River to the place it begun. . .3

This document, although of considerable value, would have been of little help within itself unless certain of the landmarks mentioned could be located and identified beyond question. Fortunately, however, there is preserved among the Ambler Papers in the Library of Congress a copy of a survey which Sherwood had made for this piece of land.4 Shown on this survey plat is the old road leading from Jamestown to the mainland. Also indicated are the adjacent marshes and the shore of the river. It was found, by fitting this tract to the present topography, that the marshes could be made to coincide with the present ones, but corroborative evidence of a more specific character was desired.

Exploratory trenches were excavated across this area from the present shoreline to a distance well beyond the probable eastern extent of the tract. In so doing, the remains of an old, much used road were found. They were followed for 140 feet, a distance sufficient to determine the direction. Then again placing the Sherwood plat on the map of today, but making the roads coincide, it was found that the east line of the property coincided exactly with an indistinct line of dark areas which had been recorded as remains of trees or a hedgerow. By locating the Sherwood tract to conform with the position of the road and the property line, it was found that the outlines of the marshes coincided almost exactly with those shown on the survey plat and established that there has been little change in the topography of this section of the island with exception of erosion by the river. The map reproduced on the preceding page shows both the present-day topography, including the road and property line found in the excavating, and the features recorded on the survey plat; and there now can be located, with considerable assurance, the position of the old shoreline for a distance of more than 2,000 feet.5

This example serves to illustrate the manner in which archeological and documentary research work together, each supplementing, interpreting, and verifying the facts brought to light by the other. Although many more instances could be cited, much less simple than the one described here, the general problem and method of approach have been indicated. By such research, under the combined studies of historian, archeologist, museum specialist, and architect, considerable knowledge has been gained concerning Jamestown during the seventeenth century. The exact extent of the town has been determined, the location of various tracts of land has been ascertained to with in a few feet, and roads, fences, wells, bridges, orchards, ditches, and a large number of buildings have been located and identified as to age and ownership. Moreover, by combining the information from the excavating and from documentary research, knowledge is accumulating as to the architecture of the seventeenth century and the tools and objects in use by the colonists during that period.

These results, valuable though they may be in the future interpretative development of Jamestown, are possibly no more important than the far-reaching effects of this relatively new approach to the study of historic sites. The demonstration that a great quantity of historical knowledge can be obtained by careful, painstaking archeological research, no matter how recent the site, may be the most significant contribution of the work at Jamestown.

1An important portion of the site of Jamestown, which included the single standing seventeenth-century ruin, the old brick church tower, was acquired in 1893 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. This organization, in keeping with its policy of preserving significant historic sites, has developed and safeguarded that part of the area with characteristic energy and wisdom. The remainder was acquired by the United States government in 1934 as a unit of Colonial National Historical Park. The agreement just made between the Association and the National Park service, concerning cooperative investigation, development, and preservation of the Jamestown treasures, is described on page 7.

2The Site of Old "James Towne" 1607-1698 (Richmond, 1926), 25-26.

3Ambler Papers, No. 31, Library of Congress.

4Ibid., No. 134.

5The portion of the Sherwood survey plat shown on page 4 was enlarged to exactly the same as that of the present-day map.

Agreement Unifies Jamestown Program

An outstanding example of the potentialities for cooperation resulting from enactment of the Historic Sites Act of 1935 was the agreement reached September 20 between the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the National Park Service. The understanding, which was announced by Mrs. Arthur P. Wilmer, president of the Virginia organization, provides for a unified program of development and administration for the entire Jamestown Island area, a part of which is in federal ownership while another portion, including the sole remaining ruin, belongs to the Association.

The agreement, an outgrowth of some 18 months of mutual study, also authorizes the Service to conduct archeological investigations in selected sites; and it assigns, in any museum that the Service may build, special galleries for the preservation and display of Association-owned historical objects uncovered by the explorations.

"The agreement as to trenching the island will make it possible to decide certain moot historical questions regarding which historians have differed for many years," said Mrs. Wilmer. "The location of many important sites on the island, where English civilization was first planted on American soil, has been a subject of controversy for some years, and archeological trenching will enable historians to study the historic end of Jamestown Island, which the Association owns."

CCC enrollees
Civilian Conservation Corps Enrollees Washing and Sorting Artifacts in the Jamestown Archeological Laboratory.

The A. P. V. A. acquired its preservation holdings at Jamestown when the island faced destruction from the erosional action of the James River. The Association's noteworthy program of conservation and development was continued over a number of years and the need for further exploration was recognized, but, explained Mrs. Wilmer, it "would have been impossible for the A. P. V. A. with its small personnel and limited capital, as would the erection of an adequate, fireproof museum in which to house and display the interesting objects uncovered by these investigations. Many important artifacts unquestionably will be found on this end of the island, which has had virtually no archeological investigations before this time."

The committee on cooperation with the National Park Service, which studied the unified preservation and development program for Jamestown, was composed of Miss Ellen Harvie Smith, chairman; Herbert Claiborne, Granville G. Valentine, Miss Elizabeth Watkins, and Mrs. Hampden Chamberlayne. Murray M. McGuire was legal adviser, and Dr. Fiske Kimball, a member of the Service's Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments, was designated general adviser.

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Date: 04-Jul-2002