The grave's placement inside the 17th-century Jamestown fort, the estimated time frame of the grave and the ceremonial artifacts found with the skeleton suggest it belongs to Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, said William Kelso, archaeology director of the Richmond-based Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
"This is just as significant as actually finding the fort," Kelso said. "We're talking about finding one of the Columbus-era type guys."
The association, which began excavating the fort area in 1994, is arranging DNA tests to compare the remains to Gosnold's descendants. Kelso described the skeleton - buried alone and found about 2 feet into the ground - as "remarkably" well-preserved.
A native of Suffolk, England, Gosnold pushed the English to send out another group of explorers and settlers after the disappearance of the Roanoke colony, in what is now North Carolina's Outer Banks, sometime around 1587.
In 1602 he led an expedition to the Maine and Massachusetts coasts, where he discovered and named Cape Cod, for the fish found there, and Martha's Vineyard, for his infant daughter.
As commander of the "Godspeed" four years later, he was second-in-command in the three-ship fleet that landed the 107 Virginia Company settlers at Jamestown in May of 1607. He helped design the triangular fort where they lived.
Capt. John Smith, credited with leading and ultimately saving the colony, described Gosnold as "the prime mover behind the settlement."
Gosnold died in August, 1607, after three weeks of illness. About two-thirds of the settlers died that summer.
"Had he lived, he would have been the name associated with Jamestown," Kelso said.
Kelso said that between 1607 and 1610 - an approximate time frame for the grave - about four high-ranking settlers died, leading archeologists to several possible identities of the skeleton.
But Kelso said Gosnold was by far the most important, and he suspects that the grave's placement inside the fort, along with artifacts he declined to detail Monday, support a historical narrative that describes the captain's "honorable" burial for his contributions to the settlement.
By Adrienne Schwisow