Archaeology Meets History: The Grateful Dead Of Jamestown

Several hundred years ago, a chaplain, a soldier, a nobleman and an explorer were brought together to establish the original British settlement in America. They faced hardship in disease, diet scarcity, native animosity, violence and intra-community struggles. And they may have been forgotten forever if not for a recent dig, which identified their bodies 400 years after their death.


These four historical icons’ confirmation were announced on Tuesday, at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The team of researchers responsible for the find was led by anthropologist Douglas Owsley, and together they confirmed the identity of these deceased settlers. Uncovered in the chancel of Jamestown’s historic 1608 church, the place Pocahontas married John Rolfe, are the remains of Reverend Robert Hunt, Captain Gabriel Archer, sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Captain William West.

“We have discovered four of the first leaders of the whole English enterprise in America,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeology project.


In the year 2010, when archaeologists first discovered the 1608 church, they knew immediately that these deceased were once men of stature, i.e. rich and entitled, since burial under a chancel
is traditionally reserved for the most important members of an Anglican church.

The graves’ excavation started in 2013.


Despite the fact that only 30% of the skeletons remained intact enough for study, the scientists involved in the study were able to identify the ruined bodies with the help of reliably disparate evidence, including the relatively ritualistic way in which they were buried, chemical analyses of bones and surrounding material, genealogical research and 3D imaging technology.

E.g., with a little study of the teeth, forensic experts were able to deduce each of the mens’ age of death. This was then cross-referenced with old baptismal records and attendance at universities.

These deceased teeth also shed light on how long each of the men had lived in the settlement. Why does this matter? It turns out those whom had left the Old World for the New tended to develop serious decay and abscesses in their teeth. Owsley thinks the change in diet was responsible for this. While these men were in England, the men ate mostly barley and wheat, but, in America, they’d switched to corn, whose sticky carbohydrates are more inimical to dental health.

When the data from these remains is conjoined into an image, we construct a story of life, death and religious beliefs during a critical twist in history during a time of mass settlement. This shows us a time when humble beginnings faced annihilation by famine and disease every single day.