Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Traces of lead and tooth decay in newly uncovered remains reveal the founders were of noble status—and had a new American diet.
Most know John Smith as the founder of the first English colony in America. But a new discovery at Jamestown, Virginia, by researchers from the Smithsonian and the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation has reintroduced four key leaders—and a mystery—into the history of America’s first town.
Back in 2013, the researchers uncovered four sets of skeletons buried at the earliest English church in America—the same one where Pocahontas, from the Powhatan tribe, married Englishman John Rolfe. After reviewing forensic analysis, data from 3-D technology, and extensive records kept by Ancestry.com, the researchers announced Tuesday that the remains belong to four of the first founders of English America.
They were among the first to arrive on the small island of Jamestown: Reverend Robert Hunt, the first minister from the Church of England; Captain Gabriel Archer, rival of the explorer John Smith; Sir Ferdinando Wainman, the first English knight to be buried in America; and Captain William West, who died fighting Powhatan warriors.
All were buried between 1608 and 1610, at a time when the colony of about 145 settlers and sailors was on the brink of failure. “These [four] men in various ways witnessed the first three years of the establishment of the [English] colony,” says James Horn, president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “They endured food shortages, starvation, Indian attacks, and diseases.” Those very problems cut the number of Englishmen at Jamestown in half.
The discovery also revealed that religion may have played an even bigger role in the founding of the city than historians have believed. A small silver box was found, inscribed with an “M” (or a “W”), meticulously placed on top of Archer’s coffin. Researchers think it may be a Catholic artifact—which, if true, would reveal that “the Catholics’ effort to undermine the colony in its infancy was much more advanced and sophisticated than historians previously thought,” says Horn.
Only about 30 percent of each skeleton was recovered, but it was enough for the researchers to determine the sex, age at death, and diets of the four, as well as traces of heavy metals. Since all four were of noble status, the researchers believe the three who didn’t die from fighting likely died not from starvation but from illnesses.
One of the biggest clues that the four remains are of people of noble status is the traces of lead in their bodies. Noble Englishmen were exposed to a lot of lead via their use of pewter and lead-glazed silverware. “If you are at the lower end of the socioeconomic status, you have less exposure to that … and it is something that is age-cumulative. It packs in the bones,” says Douglas Owsley, who heads the department of archaeology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Analyses of their dentures showed tooth decay, which signifies a change from a traditional British diet of wheat, barley, and rye to a corn-based, more cariogenic American diet.
Archaeologists excavated the site in part to preserve something they fear will be lost to rising sea levels. ”We are in a very fragile environment on the island and depending on the kind of sea level and climate change models we’re looking at, we know that we’re going to lose a significant part of the island over the next 20, 30, 40 years—without any question,” Horn tells CityLab. “The fort is positioned on one of the highest elevations, about 15 feet above sea level.”
That may sound like a lot, but Horn notes that the ground water is already seeping up through the island. “There will be, without doubt, a concerted effort by ourselves and other agencies to salvage as many sites of cultural significance as we can over the next generation or two.”
Horn says they are focusing on sites most at risk as well as topics that are still shrouded in mystery. “We know nothing about the first African arrivals at Jamestown,” he says. “The first Africans in English North America arrived in the James River, and we’d love to learn more about their experiences.”