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‘Highly Significant’ Discovery for American History in Town Where Pocahontas Was Married

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"We have discovered some of the earliest founders of English America."

Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze

In their excavation of the same church where Pocahontas married John Rolfe in the English colonial settlement of Jamestown, archaeologists made another historic discovery. The bodies of four individuals were uncovered, one with an object traditionally associated with the Catholic faith that's puzzling scientists.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestowne announced Tuesday they that they found and identified the remains of four bodies considered "among the first founders of English America," Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation President Dr. James Horn said.

Two of the four skeletons discovered at the 1608 church in Jamestown on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze)

The location of the church itself was discovered back in 2010, and the excavation leading to the discovery of the bodies in 2013 helped confirm the church David Givens, senior staff archaeologist with Jamestown Rediscovery told TheBlaze.

"It was very surprising that they were intact," Givens said of the skeletons.

Still, the remains were scant — only about 30 percent of each skeleton remained — and very little wood of the three coffins (one body was buried in a shroud) was intact as well. The researchers were able to reconstruct the shape of the coffins due to placement of nails discovered in each grave.

The bodies were discovered in the church's chancel, which the scientists said was particularly interesting because it is considered a prominent location where the communion table would have been.

Archaeologists excavate the graves of four individuals in a church in Jamestown. (Photo credit: Michael Lavin/Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation/Preservation Virginia)

Archaeologists then sought help from Smithsonian experts to help identify the remains. Various factors including artifacts found inside the grave, physical observations and historical records helped them trace the remains to the identities of four men.

Here's who they were:

  • Reverend Robert Hunt was buried with his head facing east, the traditional position for clergymen, and in a shroud without a coffin. He was the first Anglican minister at Jamestown and is believed to have died at 39 years old.
  • Captain Gabriel Archer, the rival of Captain John Smith, died during a particularly deadly time for the colony plagued by disease, starvation and attacks. Particularly notable about his grave was the presence of a silver reliquary, which scientists said suggests Archer was a secret Catholic or someone in the community was.
  • Sir Ferdinando Wainman is considered the first English knight buried in America.
  • Captain William West's body was draped with the very fragile silver and silk fabric that scientists later identified as a military sash.

As for the silver box found in Archer's grave, when it was initially uncovered by scientists Dr. William Kelso, director of archaeology at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, said speculation as to what it was and what it held "went wild."

"It was lying on the coffin, not in the coffin," Kelso said.

The reliquary was cleaned of corrosion but scientists were not able to open it. Instead, they used various technologies to analyze what was inside. (Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze)

The box was mechanically cleaned revealing an inscribed "M" on the cover that was sealed shut. Using various scanning technologies, scientists took a look inside the box and found objects they determined to be a broken ampulla and bones. An ampulla, the scientists said, traditionally would have held holy water, oil or blood.

"It was loaded with pieces of bone, we think human bone is in there with this ampula and together they make a Catholic object known as a reliquary, but it's not necessarily a Catholic object," Kelso said. "Remember this is the Protestant Church of England."

A modeled look at the bone fragments and broken ampulla inside the reliquary. (Image credit: Micro Photonics Inc. and the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation/ Preservation Virginia)

Adam Metallo with the Smithsonian's 3-D Digitization Program told TheBlaze 3-D recreations of the reliquary and of the grave sites could be used for educational purposes. (Photo credit: Liz Klimas)

"What does this all add up to? We have discovered some of the earliest founders of English America," Horn said at Tuesday's conference. "This is the oldest English church in America — 1608 — and without any question the four men buried in the chancel between 1608 and 1610 are four of the first leaders of the whole English enterprise in America.

"These men in various ways witnessed the first three years of the established colony. ... So it is highly significant that we have made this discovery," Horn said.

Photo credit: Liz Klimas/TheBlaze

Going forward, the Smithsonian plans to conduct further research on the remains, including DNA analysis. Douglas Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian natural history museum, said that the institution plans to host a symposium that looks at life in the country's early colonial history and this discovery at Jamestown is one piece of archaeological work contributing to that history in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Watch this 3-D recreation of the excavation sight and the graves:

"For American history this is the beginning, and Jamestown having been lost for 400 and some years, we don't know about these people," Givens said. Without the discoveries being made in this excavation, Givens said the details on these people "would have been gone, lost to history."

Watch the Richmond Dispatch's report on the discovery:

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