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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 May 2007, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
Putting Jamestown into context
By Malcolm Billings
BBC News, Jamestown

The Queen has arrived in the US to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia - although many Americans will still tell you it was in Plymouth, Massachusetts - 13 years later.

Painting of Jamestown in the early 1600s
English settlers trade with Indians in the fort at Jamestown
"They all thought that I'd taken leave of my senses," archaeologist Bill Kelso told me when we met by the James River.

"Everyone," he said, "believed that the Jamestown fort of 1607 had been washed away and lost to the river".

"When I started to dig in 1993 my archaeological expedition had a staff of one and that was me."

Bill Kelso led me to the river bank where he began to dig with a trowel in 1993.

"Quite near the surface I struck some pieces of pottery and a clay pipe. I'd seen the same sort of thing on 17th century sites in England so I kept digging," he said.

Archaeological remains

By 2003, archaeologists had revealed the remains of the triangular palisade and the towers of the fort which the settlers had built in only 19 days.

Half of them died soon after from heat and exhaustion.

The fort is just over one acre in size and is packed with archaeological remains.

They found the foundations of Elizabethan half-timbered houses with thatched roofs.

More than 750,000 artefacts have been recovered from the site - the site that was not supposed to be there.

Another archaeologist came up with a paper sack full of things he had found that morning.

Historians in the 19th century were looking for a more noble beginning and opted for The Pilgrim Fathers. They landed in Plymouth in 1620 - 13 years after Jamestown
Bly Straube, museum curator
He tipped them out on a trestle table - pottery shards, clay pipes and short lengths of greenish looking metal.

"That's copper," Bill Kelso explained. "They had this, along with beads, to trade with the Indians."

The first settlers had among them the younger sons of gentry families who kept up appearances and continued to dress like gentlemen.

Buttons from jackets give a clue to the quality of their clothes. One personal item must have belonged to a man of means.

It is made of silver, about two inches long and in the shape of a dolphin. Coming out of the dolphin's mouth is a curved pick used to clean teeth - while the other end - at the tail of the dolphin, there is a tiny silver spoon used for getting wax out of gentlemen's ears.

Damp conditions

The Queen will see some of the finest objects that are now in the newly opened site museum which the Americans curiously call an Archaearium.

One exhibition is a reconstruction of a deep well that was packed with stuff that had fallen in or been thrown away.

There were parts of a suit of armour - a breast plate and helmet. There was an axe head and other iron tools.

Part of a bucket and rope survived, loads of pottery and the remains of deer and fish bones. The damp conditions in the well meant that everything including leather shoes had been preserved.

Jamestown as a settlement had always been known to historians. It is the discovery of layers of objects that add such an important new dimension to the story of the founding of English America that is new.

So why was Jamestown largely ignored by Americans? It was, after all, the capital of Virginia for almost 100 years.

"It's partly to do with image and a bad press," Bly Straube, the curator of the new site museum explained.

Artists impression of first English settlers arriving in America
Captain John Smith landing on the Virginia coast in 1607
At the beginning it was a nightmare of a place. They arrived in a drought with a charter from King James to find gold, keep the Spanish out of North America and find a new route to the riches of the East.

But in 1609 they starved and died like flies. There is even documentary evidence to suggest that at one point they ate each other.

Pilgrim fathers

Nineteenth century historians had little respect for the settlers whom they described as lazy and incompetent. In short, Jamestown was a fiasco.

Virginia was also on the wrong side in the civil war. Sitting on top of Jamestown fort are the remains of a confederate gun emplacement.

"Historians in the 19th century were looking for a more noble beginning and opted for The Pilgrim Fathers," Bly Straube explained.

"They landed in Plymouth in 1620. They had their women and children, and were determined to forge a new life with religious freedom in a new England."

That read much better than the story of the commercially driven Virginia company with its slaves and tobacco in the background, and reports of violence and cannibalism.

With the history of settlement re-versioned, the Thanksgiving holiday became associated with the ideals of the Pilgrim Fathers and although nothing remains to be seen of Plymouth's original settlement today most Americans will tell you that Plymouth is where it all began.

Remarkable archaeological discoveries have put Jamestown back on the map and all we need now, says Bly Straube is another holiday straight after Thanksgiving called Jamestown day.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday 3 May, 2007 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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