Every schoolchild in America grows up hearing the story of the Jamestown Colony. For most of us it may bring back memories of John Rolfe and Pocahontas, or perhaps the “starving time” winter of 1609–1610 when 80% of the members of the colony died.
The site of the colony is now co-managed by Preservation Virginia and the U.S. National Parks Service. Over the last twenty years they have worked to discover more about the history of Jamestown. Part of this is an active archaeology program. Over the last twenty years teams have made dozens of major discoveries. Research conducted as part of one of these excavations has presented us with a quandary for colonial times: the presence of a Catholic in an Anglican church.
Back in 2010, the site of the first church was discovered. Archaeologists discovered four bodies buried where the chancel of the Anglican church was. Those buried in this area of a church were usually upper-echelon members of the community. There was nothing immediately available that specifically identified the individuals, however.
Some clues were found during the dig. One body had a silk sash with silver sequins. Another had part of a military officer’s staff. The same grave turned up the most intriguing find, however: a small silver box.
Everything was packed up and shipped to a laboratory where forensic anthropologists started examinations. Meanwhile, researchers started attacking records in the U.S. and in England. All looking for clues that would help them identify these four individuals. The small box, however, proved to be the most intriguing.
This box turned out to be made of silver. CT scans showed that inside the silver box was a small lead capsule containing bone fragments. It was a Catholic reliquary. The bone fragments would have belonged to a saint in the Roman Catholic church. To find such a thing buried in the chancel of an Anglican church in an English colony is very curious. The Church of England had split from Rome in 1534, about 75 years before the burials. During this period, Anglicans did not get along with Roman Catholics.
After five years of research, the bodies have been tentatively identified: Rev. Robert Hunt, first past of the colony; Capt William West; Sir Ferdinando Wainman; and Capt. Gabriel Archer. It is Archer who was the Roman Catholic. All four were less than forty yeas old.
There is still more research to do. Questions such as “How did a Catholic come to be buried in the chancel of an Anglican church?” and “Under what circumstances did they die?” amongst others remain to be answered. And these answers may shed more light on on early English settlers in North America. You can read more about this project on NPR or The Atlantic.