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Uncovering the real Jamestown

Archaeologist William Kelso dreamt of finding the remnants of the British colony, long believed lost in the waters of River James.

india Updated: Apr 27, 2007 15:24 IST

Great change can be wrought by one man's obsession. John Smith, whose statue stands alone overlooking the James River, was driven by ambition to save Jamestown, Britain's first colony in the New World.

Archaeologist William Kelso dreamt of finding the remnants (fort) of the same colony, long believed lost to the meandering waters of the river James.

Little more than a decade ago, Kelso was nearly alone in his faith that if he just dug in the right place, he could uncover a piece of history. As a graduate student at the nearby College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Kelso first became fascinated with the site.

Years later, having developed a reputation for making significant finds elsewhere, he approached the Virginia preservation organisation that owns part of the site and emphasized his desire to find the fort before this year's 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement.

Before long, Kelso hit pay dirt, finding part of the fort's outside wall. A flood of discoveries followed, and "thousands and thousands" of artefacts were unearthed.

Eventually, Kelso's fantasy became fact, as he proved that only a small portion of the fort had been washed away by the river current. The rest had been waiting to be rediscovered all along.

In May, the US will mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding with a host of events and a visit by Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Unlike past anniversaries, for the first time, visitors will be able to stand in the centre of the original fort and view artefacts four centuries old.

Now, visitors approach a wooden palisade erected exactly where the original fort's walls once stood.

Standing amid the ongoing archaeological dig, Kelso points to a recently erected frame of a long, narrow building. The wooden outline likely was a barracks for the first settlers.

It would have been easy for the men to make a similar building, and "to prove it, this was built by archaeologists," Kelso says.

Despite his groundbreaking success, he declares himself humbled and in awe, standing in the middle of the original fort where America began.

"It's taking the story of Jamestown from a myth to actual history," Kelso said.

The Jamestown colonists have historically been portrayed as a group of lazy English gentlemen, more interested in finding gold than in scratching a living out of the soil. Kelso thinks many of his team's findings dispel those notions.

The colony was better supplied than previously thought, and Kelso cites weapons, farm implements and other tools among his hard evidence.

"It was a serious effort at colonization," he said, adding that the financial failure of the company that bankrolled the colony should not make Jamestown a failure in the history books.

Kelso and other Jamestown historians note that the colony established a British foothold that would form the basis of the US and brought free enterprise and representative government to the continent.

Archaeologists have uncovered more American Indian artefacts than expected - suggesting that Indians may have lived inside the fort alongside English colonists.

A new building showcases the finds by Kelso's team, including coins, pottery, cannonballs, a silver earpick and bones of several settlers.

One skeleton is believed to be that of Bartholomew Gosnold, a captain who was influential in establishing the colony. Scientific analysis on the corpse's teeth showed the man could have come from Grosnold's part of England, and a staff buried with the body denoted his status as a captain.

The artefacts tell a more complete story ahead of Jamestown's 400th anniversary, but archaeologists are far from finished.

Kelso said that at least 60 percent of the fort remains to be excavated, enough to keep his team occupied for years to come.