Archaeologist Bill Kelso put down his spade in Jamestown and picked up his pen in Charlottesville
By Ann White Spencer
In 1994, the 400th anniversary of Jamestown loomed large for Preservation Virginia‘s new archaeologist, Bill Kelso. He stood alone at an unexplored Jamestown site he had frequented since he was a graduate student at the College of William and Mary. With him, he had his spade and his determination to refute a given wisdom concerning America’s first permanent English settlement.
Had the starving colonists’ forted community been flooded over time and finally washed away by the James River, as archaeologists had accepted? Were human remains, artifacts, and their answers forever lost to posterity? Kelso just didn’t believe so, and he dug.
Kelso turned up fragments of early seventeenth-century ceramics. Later his team uncovered the footprint of the fort’s southern palisade, and thus began the unearthing of one of America’s most significant archeological treasures—the original 1607 James Fort.
Kelso and Jamestown Rediscovery staff continued to excavate more than one million artifacts of life in Fort James, the original fort, burials, cellars, and interior buildings, including the chapel, built in 1608, where English colonist John Rolfe married Pocahontas, a daughter of Powhatan, paramount chief of a political alliance of Virginia Indians.
When pressure mounted to publish a scholarly account and analysis of the excavations, Kelso joined the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) as a resident fellow in 2004. At VFH, Kelso removed himself from fieldwork for the first time in many years. He put down his spade and took up his pen to present the rediscovery of the Jamestown settlement. His book Jamestown, the Buried Truth was published by the University of Virginia Press in 2006.
Most recently, Kelso’s team, the Smithsonian Institute, and Colonial Williamsburg collaborated with forensic anthropology and archaeology to consider the occurrence of cannibalism at Jamestown during the winter of 1609–1610, known as the Starving Time. Their work is among the top ten archaeological discoveries of 2013 named by Archaeology magazine.
About the Author
Ann White Spencer is the former assistant director of the residential fellowship program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.