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William Kelso
William Kelso
Locator map
1994 to present

Jamestown, VA

Number of artifacts found:
More than 350,000

Previous excavations by others:
1897, 1901, 1903, 1934-37, 1955

Original colonists:
107 males arrived in 1607

Conventional Wisdom:
The fort disappeared into the river in the 18th century.

Reason for Kelso’s success:
“It was probably more hope and luck than anything else. We said, ‘We’re going to find the fort,’ and it happened.”

Learn More

History of Jamestown
Learn more about how the Virginia Company’s explorers established the first permanent English settlement on the banks of the James River in the midst of disease, famine, and conflict.

Virtual Jamestown
This interactive map highlights the 1608 voyages of John Smith in which he explored and mapped the Chesapeake Bay.

Colonial National Historical Park
Get in-depth information on some of 17th-century Jamestown’s most important personalities and discover the role that women and African Americans played in the success of the settlement.


Barbour, Philip L. Pocahontas and Her World. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1970.

Bridenbaugh, Carl. Jamestown: 1544-1699. Oxford University Press, 1980.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. W. W. Norton & Company, 1975.


Field Dispatch - Virginia

Tought Times at Jamestown
Photographs by Ira Block E-mail this page to a friend


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This Week’s Questions. Click on a question for a full response.

1.   Luck and archaeology 4.   Graves


5.   Embattlements
3.   DNA 6. Jamestown vs. Anthony Johnson’s possible site

Question 1:

The article says that you bought a shovel and started to dig. It sounds like serendipity that you picked the right spot when so many others had tried and failed. I’m sure it wasn’t just a lucky guess. How did you decide where to begin your search?


The location of the church and its tower, still standing today, was the key to where to start. That area had never been searched before, and utility line trenching through the churchyard in 1939 unearthed artifacts that were saved and recognized for what they were, early 17th century, by archaeologist Ivor NoŽl Hume and curator Bly Straube. It was Hume’s idea to seek that line which was said to be located near the Pocahontas statue. When I learned that the statue had been moved from the churchyard to its present position since 1939, it made sense to look for the line south of the church. Also, and more significantly, the present reconstructed church stands on two earlier foundations, and I reasoned if the earliest was the footing for the original church of 1608, which was said to be in the middle of the fort, then the fort wall line should be about where I started digging. That is a real summary, and no, it was not by pure chance at all but some luck was definitely involved.  

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Question 2:

How did you locate the cemetery? Did it have any markers? Also, since so many people (approximately 80%) died, have other excavations found pre-1650 gravesites?


The unmarked burial ground was discovered by archaeologists investigating the foundations of the Jamestown statehouse in the 1950s. We have located at least 50 more graves in the churchyard. Two of these seem to predate 1650, but only four have been excavated. There are no plans now to excavate any more remains, and those that have been excavated will be re-buried after study.

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Question 3:

How can you tell by using DNA what they died of?


It is not the human DNA we will use to define disease information. A skeletal biologist is going to sample for the DNA of viruses, which we are told, lodge in the bones of previously infected people.

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Question 4:

Were you searching for graves, or did you just happen to come across them? I was shocked that graves so recent would be disturbed. What has been the response to this?


All the graves were discovered while searching for other things, as they were all unmarked and unknown. After we acquired a permit from the State, some of the graves were excavated. The skeletons will be studied, then given a proper burial and marking—giving them the respect they deserve. You might be interested in attending the re-burial ceremony, which I will do everything in my power to make happen on May 14, 2007, as part of the 400th anniversary observance of the founding of Jamestown.

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Question 5:

What evidence have you discovered regarding the relationship between the settlers and the Indians?


A fair percentage of the artifacts we found relate, either directly or indirectly, to the Virginia Indians who lived in this region during the settlement years. There was much trade of tools and copper ornaments. A number of artifacts suggest that some of the Indian women lived with some of the early settlers.

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Question 6:

A few years ago I had the privilege of working on a site in the Pungoteague Creek area where we were looking for Anthony Johnson’s house from the mid-1650s. My question is, in what ways would the Anthony Johnson site differ from the Jamestown site?


Anthony Johnson, a free Virginia black who had bought his way out of bondage (it is not clear whether he had been a slave or an indentured servant), owned 250 acres of land in Virginia before he died in the spring of 1670. I don’t know much of Johnson’s biography, but I understand he established a tobacco plantation and owned slaves, so I think it is logical to predict that he would run his agribusiness in the same way as the successful white ex-servants with whom he was familiar. The difference between Jamestown and the Johnson site is that one was urban and the other rural. Land use and cultural remains at Jamestown were concentrated in a small urban area compared with Johnson’s farm, where remains were scattered over acres of open landscape.

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