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Autopsy of America

How archaeologist Bill Kelso solved one of this country's biggest mysteries.



For Bill Kelso, it all started with a simple question: "So where was the fort?"

It took more than 30 years to get the answer.

Kelso left his native Ohio in May 1963 to become a graduate history student at the College of William & Mary, and one of the first things he did upon reaching Virginia was visit the site of James Fort, the 1607 settlement where Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas walked in Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the New World. He had visited Bethlehem, and the year before he'd traveled to Cape Cod and Plymouth.

"I just had a thing about going to the beginning of places," Kelso says. "I just wanted to see these places where all these events happened. To me, it's [being at] the exact places — not near, not close. You've got to stand there."

When Kelso asked a National Park Service ranger at Jamestown in 1963 about the location of the James Fort, the ranger just pointed offshore to the middle of the James River. By the 1950s prominent archaeologists and scholars had concluded that the river's boundaries had shifted over the last 350 years, and the site of the famed triangular fort had been long lost to erosion.

Kelso had only recently learned from a magazine article that Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World. It surprised him. Kelso had always heard teachers and history books brushing Jamestown aside as little more than a "failure" or a "footnote."

But something didn't fit. When Kelso visited the Jamestown park, he saw some small 17th-century artifacts on display. They'd been found during a 1955 archaeological dig near the 1670s brick church tower on the river's shore. The tower is the only standing remnant of 17th-century Jamestown. Kelso, then 22, asked the ranger a follow-up question: If the site where the fort once stood was underwater, why were these 17th-century artifacts found on dry land?

The park ranger had no answer.

Shortly thereafter, Kelso read a newly published book by I. Noel Hume, the director of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, in which Hume made the argument that the James Fort site had not eroded into the river. Kelso enthusiastically agreed, and not too much later, he went to work for Hume, who became his mentor.

And so began a quest that many might have thought quixotic at the time: to find the remains of James Fort on dry land.

"It was not supposed to be there," Kelso says. "It was gone. Everybody knew that."

By the early 1990s William Kelso was a respected and experienced archaeologist specializing in Colonial America. He had successfully convinced the co-owners of the Jamestown park — APVA Preservation Virginia (the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) — to hire him to begin digging on Jamestown Island to find the fort's remains in anticipation of the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007.

From almost the first wheelbarrows of dirt, Kelso found a treasure trove of Colonial artifacts. Since 1994, when he began working on his own with little more than a shovel and wheelbarrow, Kelso and his team of archaeologists have unearthed about a million Colonial artifacts, ranging from mundane buttons and coins to eye-popping discoveries such as helmets, armor and even a loaded pistol. Not to mention the skeletons of settlers.

Now Kelso, director of archaeology for APVA Preservation Virginia's Jamestown Rediscovery project, is internationally famous as the man who found James Fort.

"It will go down as one of the landmarks in American archaeology," says archaeologist Dennis Blanton, who unsuccessfully searched underwater for the fort's remains in the James River in the early 1990s in cooperation with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), when Blanton was head of archaeology at the College of William & Mary.

Kelso's Jamestown dig has been featured in magazines such as Time, National Geographic and Smithsonian; newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today; and on TV shows by CNN, the BBC, PBS, The Discovery Channel, The History Channel and National Geographic. (Kelso was named Virginian of the Year by the Virginia Press Association in 2005.)

As Virginia prepares to celebrate next year the 400th anniversary of Jamestown — the beginning of Anglo-American history — expect Kelso to become even more prominent.

National Geographic magazine is expected to do a major feature story in the spring on Kelso's dig (to be followed by a two-hour National Geographic network TV special later in the year) and PBS's NOVA will feature it in January. Also in January Kelso will receive the 2007 J.C. Harrington Award from the Society for Historical Archaeology. (The highest award in archaeology, the Harrington medal is named for J.C. "Pinky" Harrington, who, interestingly enough, preceded Kelso in searching for the James Fort site in the 1930s.)

This fall, Kelso released a book about his discoveries: "Jamestown, the Buried Truth." The book's dust-cover bears a laudatory blurb from best-selling mystery novelist Patricia Cornwell offering perhaps her highest praise: Kelso's "unearthing of Jamestown is truly the autopsy of America, an amazing dissection and reconstruction of 400-year-old artifacts and human remains that reveal how the first settlers spent their days, how they lived and died, and what they accomplished and suffered. Without chief archaeologist William Kelso's almost mystical vision that the original site still existed and his persistence against all odds to unearth it, we would have little to rely on but legend to tell us how modern America began."

Not only can tourists now see the artifacts up close, but they can also buy replicas of items such as the decorative sterling-silver, combination ear-cleaner/toothpick in the shape of a dolphin which Kelso's team unearthed. Until this year, almost all of the artifacts found by Kelso's team were stored in a warehouse, available only to Kelso's teams and select researchers and special guests and donors. But in May, the APVA opened a $4.9 million "archaerium" — an archaeology museum — paid for by public and private contributors (including Cornwell). It displays more than 1,000 artifacts from the dig.

It pleases Kelso no end. He and his team dig every day in full view of tourists or whoever else might be interested, and trained volunteers are usually on hand to discuss the findings. High-profile visitors to the site have included international dignitaries and actor Colin Farrell, who visited with Kelso during production of the 2005 Terrence Malick film, "The New World," in which Farrell played John Smith.

Many archaeologists jealously guard their discoveries until they can be logged in academic journals or released to the press. Not Kelso.

"I'm not doing this for one or two other of my colleagues just to make myself look good, you know? I'm doing this because this is the history of the country. It belongs to the people," he says. "To me, that's the only reason for studying history and for doing archaeological projects like this. [It] is to educate people about their own history."

Dr. William M. Kelso (he holds a doctorate specializing in historical archaeology from Emory University) begins his morning by walking from his Jamestown home to his office at Historic Jamestowne, the park co-owned by APVA Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service.

At 65 he's very fit, his face and arms deeply tanned and freckled. His white mustache easily stretches to fit his smile. He's compact, slightly barrel-chested and has a purposeful, muscular stride. It's not at all hard to imagine him as he was in college, playing semipro football as a kicker for the Savannah Indians. (He remains a big Redskins and University of Virginia football fan.) He runs three to five miles a week — "slowly," he adds — and likes fishing for rockfish and perch.

In the middle of talking to a reporter in his office, his phone rings and the caller on the other line gets his undivided attention. Is the dig team calling about an important find? It's a more important caller, he says with a laugh: "the boss" — his wife of 44 years, Ellen, with whom he has two children, four grandchildren and two basset hounds.

The Kelsos spend their weeks in Jamestown and the weekends outside Charlottesville, where they're restoring a 19th-century cabin. They also play in a bluegrass band in Williamsburg called Ever Who Shows Up (for obvious reasons). Like , his vast knowledge of Virginia history, his love of bluegrass is an outgrowth of spending four decades in Virginia. A guitarist since childhood, Kelso took up the banjo at age 30 while working with bluegrass lovers on archaeology projects at Colonial Williamsburg's Carter's Grove Plantation. (His "coolest gig," he says, was opening for bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley in the spring while Kelso sat in with a Charlottesville group, the Ga$ Money Band.)

In addition to working for Colonial Williamsburg, Kelso served as commissioner of archaeology for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission, a position in which he trained many of Virginia's up-and-coming archaeologists, some of whom followed him to Jamestown in the 1990s. He also was director of archaeology at Thomas Jefferson's Virginia homes, Monticello and Poplar Forest.

At the time Kelso began digging, the APVA Preservation Virginia's Jamestown park looked exactly like that - a park. The only thing left standing from 1600s Jamestown was a brick church tower, and aside from statues of John Smith and Pocahontas, there was nothing to see but green lawns and a lovely river view.

In fact, generations of Virginians who took field trips to Jamestown as schoolchildren probably grew up thinking the fort site was located about a mile away on the mainland at the other side of Jamestown Island. That's where in 1957 the state government erected a replica of James Fort for the 350th anniversary of Jamestown, along with reproductions of the three ships that brought the first settlers to Jamestown in 1607: the Susan Constant, the Godspeed, and the Discovery. Kelso'(The re-created fort is still operates today as the competitively named "Jamestown Settlement," though Kelso's discoveries have proven it to be historically inaccurate in its dimensions and construction. Jamestown Settlement's museum holds 17th-century artifacts purchased from antiques dealers and other museums, but no genuine Jamestown artifacts, like those from Kelso's dig.)

Kelso's dig is on Jamestown Island. At that true site of the Jamestown settlement, Kelso and his team have unearthed the foundations of many 1600s Jamestown buildings, such as the brick foundation of the Virginia Statehouse, the first governmental building erected in the New World. (Note to those who were taught in grade school that Plymouth established the first permanent English settlement in the New World in 1620: Jamestown was established in 1607 and was the seat of Virginia government until 1699. Virginia settlers in the 1600s branched out of Jamestown to settle into present-day Henrico and Chesterfield counties and elsewhere across the state.) The archaerium was built over the statehouse site, with the foundation left partially visible through glass in the floor.

Kelso and his team also unearthed foundations of residential structures such as the governor's "palace," the royal governor's brick residence that stood within the fort. This year the team discovered a filled-in well below the remains of a chimney in the governor's house. Like another well the team had previously found, this one had been used as a trash pit by the settlers after the well water probably went bad. Inside the well, which still had standing water inside, items the team found included lots of deer bones (meal remnants); a child's leather shoe (it possibly fell in when a parent was holding the child while getting water from the well); a long brass pistol (with two ammo balls still loaded inside); and a bent ceremonial halberd, or battle-ax, with the crest of the royal governor, Lord De La Warre (probably used as a hook to retrieve something valuable that had fallen down the well, Kelso thinks).

But perhaps the most exciting find to Kelso was a small piece of metal about the size of a belt buckle with the word "Yamestowne" stamped into it. Kelso's team believes it was a shipping tag affixed to goods being shipped from England. Out of the 1 million items recovered so far, it's the only item with the settlement's name on it. The only other artifacts even close to that were some personal items Kelso's team found that bore initials of Jamestown settlers, such as a pewter pitcher found down inside another old well.

Reflecting on the tag's discovery as he walks around the site, Kelso says, "It was just stunning to look at that thing. I don't know why — I mean, we know [the site is] Jamestown and all that, but to just see the reality of an address — there was an address here, it was permanent."

APVA Preservation Virginia spokeswoman Paula Neely likens it to finding the name on a shipwreck. But Kelso reminds her that with a shipwreck you usually don't know which ship you've found until you find the name of the ship.

With Jamestown, it was the footprint of the fort walls that let Kelso know he'd found the site of the 1607 James Fort.

There were signs that the fort site wasn't underwater for more than a century before Kelso ever visited Jamestown.

In the 1860s, Confederate soldiers who built earthwork fortifications for a battle that never happened on the site apparently unearthed some 1600s-era artifacts.

And when the National Park Service brought in utility lines to the site in 1930s, workers found more artifacts. Archaeologist J.C. "Pinky" Harrington worked for the park service from 1936 to 1942, searching for evidence of the fort. Ironically, he found the remains of the fort's log walls — regular round dark stains all in a row under the dirt where the logs had decomposed — but Harrington didn't know what he was looking at.

The fort wall remains are "a very narrow trench with a bunch of [marks left by] small posts," Blanton says. "It's not some giant stockade like you'd see in some Fort Apache movie."

But that's what archaeologists in the early 20th century thought it would look like.

Kelso's team has discovered that the walls (also called palisades or the curtain) of James Fort were built using small trees about 8 feet to 13 feet high that were cut down and placed vertically in the ground side by side and nailed together by horizontal planks.

Talking by cell phone from Roanoke Island, where he's seeking out the answers to the Lost Colony mystery, Nick Luccketti (pronounced Loo-ketty), principal archaeologist at the James River Institute for Archaeology in Williamsburg, recalls that Harrington identified the fort wall boundaries "as a field ditch or a boundary of some sort. He really had no reason to think this was any kind of fortification. … But to his credit, he meticulously recorded the features he found."

Harrington and the late John Cotter, the archaeologist hired by the Park Service to look for the fort site in advance of Jamestown's 350th anniversary in 1957, both came to the conclusion that the fort site had been eroded.

In his 1960s book "New Discoveries at Jamestown," Cotter wrote that the "first settlement … disappeared beneath the eroding current of the James River during the past 300 years. … The fort site, no trace of which has been found on land, is thought to have been eaten away."

But Harrington, who died in 1998, lamented somewhat prophetically in 1984 that "only a fraction of the enormous archaeological potential of Jamestown has been realized."

In 1963, however, archaeologist I. Noel Hume, who became the head of archaeology at Colonial Williamsburg, began publishing his theory that the James Fort site was still on dry land, citing artifacts that had been found over the years and that historical accounts by original settlers said they had chosen a spot on high ground to build the fort. He found a like-minded protégé in Kelso, who started his career working for Hume at Colonial Williamsburg.

Reached at his Williamsburg home, Hume says the Jamestown dig resulted in "the most important" archaeological find in America. Back in the 1960s, Hume reasoned that the artifacts that had been found around the 1670s church tower over the years "had to come from somewhere," and "it was worth determining where these artifacts came from." In the 1980s he and Kelso began mapping out a possible location for where evidence of the fort might most likely be found on dry land.

During the late 1980s, APVA Preservation Virginia began seeking out ways to mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. In 1991, Kelso, Luccketti (who would work as senior archaeologist under Kelso for the first five years of the Jamestown dig, from 1994 to 1999) and Bly Straube (who would become Historic Jamestowne's curator) conducted an assessment for APVA Preservation Virginia of archaeological artifacts found on the site in previous decades.

"I think the conclusion of the report was Bill's statement that if you dumped these artifacts [that had been found on and around the site in past years] on the desk of an archaeologist and you asked him what kind of a site did this come from, your immediate reaction would be it came from a fort," Luccketti says.

On the basis of that assessment, Kelso put together a proposal to APVA Preservation Virginia asking the nonprofit to hire him to seek the fort site on dry land.

Blanton, who looked for the fort's remains underwater in the James, says, "I don't recall anyone saying, 'Get out of town!' [to Kelso's proposal], but I don't think anyone had high hopes, either."

Yet, "literally from the getgo, [Kelso] was generating just copious quantities of artifacts, especially those that were highly suggestive of the fort period," Blanton says. "It was like instant gratification for him because literally the first excavation started to yield amazing stuff."

APVA Preservation Virginia hired Kelso in 1993, and he spent a year reviewing documents, artifacts and history, as well as collecting grant money. In spring 1994, he began digging by himself but quickly hired staff and hosted a field school with archaeology students he was teaching at the University of Virginia.

"From the very beginning we were finding lots and lots of artifacts to tell us we were within John Smith's Jamestown," Luccketti recalls.

It was an exciting time. And everyone involved was eager to tell the world what they'd found. Luccketti remembers Kelso being circumspect, not wanting to declare that they had found the 1607 fort site, until they were certain of it.

Blanton, however, recalls that Kelso wanted his colleagues to declare he had found the fort after Kelso uncovered the footprints of the first "corner" of the triangular fort — the bulwarks, or gun emplacements, that settlers built at each corner of the fort to create overlapping fire against hostile Native Americans. But "I said, if this is a triangle, show me two corners," Blanton says. "I used to drive him crazy."

By now, Kelso has uncovered and documented the dimensions of the entire fort — the measurements are just what historical accounts say they should be. All but a portion of one bulwark and part of one wall is still on dry land. APVA Preservation Virginia staff is now rebuilding historically accurate stretches of the palisades to mark the boundaries of the site.

For Lucketti, who's looking for the site of the ill-fated 1587 "Lost Colony" of Roanoke Island, Kelso's discovery of the James Fort site is an inspiration.

"A lot of scholars believe that the fort and town of the Roanoke settlement have been lost to erosion," Lucketti says, "[but] what gives me hope is that that's the same story that was told about James Fort for a century or more."

Oddly enough, for someone who spent so much time studying Jamestown's history, and who has often been the first person in 400 years to touch items that were last handled by the settlers, Kelso had a hard time visualizing what life in Jamestown was like until he saw the film "The New World" earlier this year.

"I saw it two or three times. I thought it was great," says Kelso, who praises the film's accuracy in costuming, props and set design. "It gave me a feeling for what Jamestown was like, and how insecure it was, and how dangerous and how tough it was."

Kelso compares the settlement's early days to the Wild West — he's seen the evidence firsthand. His team unearthed the skeleton of a young teen beaten and killed by arrows, thought to be the "boy" who was logged as the first casualty of battles between the settlers and Native Americans in records kept by settlers.

The team also found a male skeleton that became a topic of the PBS show "Secrets of the Dead," because it was found with a musket ball embedded in the leg, a fatal wound that would have hit an artery. Given the field label JR102C (for Jamestown Rediscovery), the skeleton was jokingly nicknamed "J.R." (as in "Who shot …?") by Kelso's staff. The theory now is that J.R. was a victim of "friendly fire" during a drill in which settlers were firing in alternating rows.

"There were so many ways they could die and they did," Kelso says, "from the climate and the Indians and fighting among themselves probably, you name it. … It was a tough place. It's kind of like the first foothold on the moon or Mars, you know?"

Which brings us to what may be Kelso's final quest — one that may really prove quixotic.

A few years back Kelso's team found a skeleton buried amid the remains of a coffin, just outside the settlement's west gate. The skeleton was buried with a captain's leading staff. Kelso is convinced the skeleton is that of Bartholomew Gosnold, one of the key founders of Jamestown and the Virginia Company. Gosnold died of a sudden illness four months after landing in Jamestown in April 1607.

Kelso made the unprecedented attempt to try to identify the 400-year-old skeleton by comparing it with mitochondrial DNA of Gosnold's relatives. He made a much-publicized trip to England, where he attempted to uncover the skeleton and take a bone sample of Gosnold's sister from inside a church in England. However, testing indicated the skeleton they found was that of a middle-aged woman, which means it probably wasn't Gosnold's sister, who died in her late 60s. The DNA didn't match.

Hume, Kelso's mentor, doesn't believe the skeleton Kelso found in Jamestown was that of Gosnold. Most early burials were done inside the fort walls, he notes, so as not to show signs of weakness to the Native Americans. Also, troops were encamped from 1610 to 1615 outside the west gate, and Hume believes the skeleton belongs to one of them. "The fact that the skeleton was accompanied by a halberd indicates he was an officer," Hume says, "but it doesn't require him to be an officer of any great consequence."

(An APVA Preservation Virginia source, however, says the staff isn't a halberd and is specifically a captain's staff, according to historical research done by Kelso's team.)

It's likely no one will ever conclusively and scientifically prove whether it's Gosnold, but Kelso has one final scientific test to perform on the skeleton, which is on view in the archaerium. It's a tooth test that can reveal what region of the world a skeleton is from, based on the groundwater where the person was raised. Gosnold was from Suffolk, so if the answer indicates another region of the world, it could rule him out.

Regardless of the final test, what's most important to Kelso is bringing to prominence some of the people involved in Jamestown other than John Smith and Pocahontas, and also bringing to the public's attention that Jamestown, not Plymouth, was where America began.

"Not so much that Plymouth was insignificant," Kelso says. "Just that Jamestown was chronologically first." It was the place of many firsts — like the first representative government in the New World and, Kelso says, many business professors point to the Virginia Company as the first corporation in the New World. "And that's before Plymouth, before they ever landed [in Plymouth]. … Every colony contributed, but [Jamestown] is first, that's just all there is — the first permanent, the first serious, the first lasting, the first enduring."

Hume chalks up the Plymouth misperception to "people up North that don't know what they're talking about," lamenting that the "average person is decreasingly interested in history. … Everybody lives from day to day listening to CNN. The past is rolled up behind them and they don't worry about it. It's gone."

Blanton, who's now curator of Native American archaeology at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta, says, "It will probably take another generation before we know the true impact" of Kelso's work in Jamestown. "If we begin to see Jamestown rise to the same prominence that Plymouth's story has, then we'll know it has some kind of enduring impact in the public eye." S

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