Jamestown discovery unearths new secrets about America's past

JAMESTOWN, Va. -- Archaeologists announced this week they have uncovered remains of four people, buried at the first permanent English settlement in America, in Jamestown, Virginia.

"In this grave was Captain William West," lead archaeologist Bill Kelso showed CBS News. "Over here, Captain Gabriel Archer; a knight, Sir Ferdinando Weyman; and the first cleric, Robert Hunt."

They were four of the original English settlers who had come to forge a new life in a harsh New World.

One of the skeletons recently uncovered by archaeologists at the site of the Jamestown colony. CBS News

Kelso and his team spent two weeks excavating these bones, opening up a 400-year-old window on America's beginnings.

"We found the evidence of lost leaders of the beginning of the colony," Kelso said. "I think it certainly puts a new emphasis on parts of that story that have never been known before."

They were part of Great Britain's upper class, as revealed by their burial inside what had been the 1607 church, and by signs of prestige -- including part of a silver sash and a captain's staff.

But the "Eureka moment" was the discovery of a silver box buried with Captain Gabriel Archer.

Cannibalism found in Jamestown

"It contained fragments of bone, probably human and two pieces of lead," Kelso explained. "This is what's called a reliquary and probably Catholic, at least in origin. And here you are sitting at Protestant Jamestown.

"It says something about ... There was kind of a secret Catholic cell that was here, in Protestant Jamestown, maybe wanting to take over ultimately."

If status and intrigue are revealed in what they were buried with, who they are can be found in their bones.

Lead forensic archaeologist Doug Owsley determined the men ranged in age from 24 to 39, and had painfully bad teeth -- which may have contributed to their demise.

"That's the beauty of archaeology, that's the beauty of he human skeleton," Owsley said. "By finding those bones, you can just basically talk to them and let them tell you their story."

It's an unfolding mystery with more discoveries yet to be unearthed.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.