Archaeologists have identified the 400-year-old remains of four men considered to be among the first leaders of Virginia’s Jamestown settlement, the New World’s first successful British colony.

As the Smithsonian reports, the badly decayed bones were discovered back in 2013 during an archaeological dig at the historic site. The two-year task of identifying the four individuals was undertaken by forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley, who works out of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, with help from a team of archaeologists at the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation at Historic Jamestowne.

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The remains were found at the same church where Pocahontas and Captain John Rolfe were married in 1614. The structure, long vanished, was initially built from wood and mud. Traces of the historic church were only rediscovered by archaeologists five years ago.

The researchers had about 30% of each skeleton to work with, but there were other clues to consider. For example, the location of the burial site within the chancel, an area near the altar reserved for clergy, indicated that the men had a prominent role in the colony. And by referencing a list of early colony leaders who died between 1608 and 1617, the researchers produced a short-list of potential candidates. The shape of the coffins (or lack thereof in one instance) and the remnants left behind, such as a Catholic silver reliquary and a ceremonial staff, provided other clues.

In addition, the researchers “tested the skeletons to determine their sex and approximate ages at death, sifted through detailed genealogies, examined diet through chemical testing and used high-resolution micro-CT scanning to reveal facts about the artifacts that were buried with the men,” writes the Smithsonian.

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The four men were identified as:

  • Reverend Robert Hunt, the chaplain at Jamestown and the colony’s Anglican minister, who died at age 39 in 1608
  • Captain Gabriel Archer, who died at age 34 in 1609 or 1610 during the “starving time”
  • Sir Ferdinando Wainman, who came to Jamestown with his first cousin, the governor of Virginia, and died at about age 34 in 1610
  • Captain William West, who died in 1610 during a skirmish with the Powhatan at age 24

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“These men witnessed the first three years of the establishment of the colony,” noted James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation in Jamestown, at Nature News.

24-year-old Captain William West was killed in 1610 during a skirmish with the Powhatan. He was buried with a military leader’s sash adorned with silver bullion fringe and spangles. (Credits: Smithsonian/Donald E. Hurlbert)

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Given how young they were when they died, it’s clear these early settlers lived a tough life. And indeed, these men lived and died at a pivotal point in the colony’s history when it faced potential collapse owing to famine, disease, and conflict.

“The skeletons of these men help fill in the stories of their lives and contribute to existing knowledge about the early years at Jamestown,” Owsley told the Smithsonian.

[ Smithsonian | Nature ]


Contact the author at george@io9.com and @dvorsky. Top image by Donald E. Hurlbert.

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