Dead Men Tell Tales

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Just surviving in the early years of America's first permanent English settlement was so trying that the colonists didn't always have the time or energy to properly bury their dead, say archaeologists now examining their graves.

By studying the remains of the early settlers and the way they were buried, the scientists hope to learn more about Jamestown and the men, women and children who struggled against disease and starvation to make it their home.

"A time machine would be great. This is the next best thing," said William Kelso, who is directing the archaeological work. "You're coming face to face with what's left of a person who lived here. I feel strongly that the remains can tell a story."

Researchers believe the burial sites date from 1607, when the settlement was founded, to 1645, when the first sections of a now-demolished statehouse complex were built over many of the graves.

Jamestown began as a business venture when three ships, carrying 100 men and four boys, landed on a small island near the mouth of the James River.

The first representative government in America was established there in 1619, and Jamestown was the capital of Virginia until 1699.

But in the winter of 1609-1610, Jamestown only barely survived. Historians call it the "starving time," and say the scores of deaths may have been caused by illness, famine brought on by drought or rats destroying the colony's corn supplies.

By the spring of 1610, only 60 of the 215 people at the Jamestown fort were still alive.

The graves now being examined may have been dug during that period, Kelso said, and studies of their remains could give scientists a better understanding of what happened at Jamestown.

Some of the graves were arranged haphazardly, and the contorted positions of some of the skeletons one was found face down indicate the people were buried hurriedly, Kelso said.

Buttons found in two graves indicate the dead were buried in their clothes, which could indicate contagious disease because the settlers had apparently tried to avoid handling the bodies, he said.

The site was first discovered in the mid-1950s. Archaeologists returned last year and have so far excavated 24 of the 74 known burial sites.

Using modern techniques, they hope to determine sex, age, diet, ancestry, general health and possible cause of death. Forensic anthropologist Ashley McKeown said most of the remains unearthed are of men, and some of the skeletons are well preserved.

When the burial study is complete, the remains will be reburied at the site. It is part of a project launched in 1994 by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities to unearth the original Jamestown fort.

Kelso said he wants to mark the burial sites with information gleaned from the remains so that visitors will learn something about the people buried there.

"People were treated so anonymously here," he said. "They really were the unsung heoes."


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