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Jamestown mystery: Whose bones have been uncovered?

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018 9:05 AM
Archaeologist David Givens uses a precise survey to tool to map remains that scientists are working to identify.

JAMESTOWN, Va. – The skeleton was beautifully laid out in a formal English-style burial, hands at the sides, palms down, the body probably pinned up in a shroud.

The arms, legs and ribs were largely intact. But the skull, which was crucial, was gone.

So when Mary Anna Hartley, picking at the dirt in the bottom of the 400-year-old grave, stumbled on the next best thing, she yelled, “Teeth!”

David Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery, standing not far away, punched his right fist into his left hand, and exulted, “Teeth.”

This was Sunday, and a breakthrough in the excavation this week of a grave believed to be that of Sir George Yeardley, who oversaw the first representative government assembly in English America, and was also one of history’s first U.S. slaveholders.

A team of archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery, aided by experts from the Smithsonian, has been gradually uncovering the skeleton, which was buried in a prominent spot in one of the first churches here.

The dig is underway in the sweltering interior of a much later church on the same spot. And archaeologists, clad in head-to-toe lab suits, are working inside a special isolation tent built around the grave.

The aim is to limit contamination of DNA they want to recover to help with identification.

Working in shifts, and using dental tools, tiny trowels and brushes, they began removing the last few inches of soil over the skeleton Saturday and had it almost uncovered Monday.

Archaeologist David Givens holds a tooth that was found during the excavation of the burial site inside the historic church at Colonial Jamestown.
Timothy C. Wright/The Washington Post

Jamestown, a haunting spot on the James River 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., is the site of the first permanent English settlement in the United States, and the ground beneath is populated with the graves of hundreds of the early colonists.

The story of Yeardley, whom most people have never heard of, has risen in importance recently because next summer marks the 400th anniversary of the famous assembly he convened.

It also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival on U.S. soil of the first enslaved Africans, some of whom he purchased, according to historians.

Thus, he represents two of the chief veins in American history - representative government and slavery, which took root in the same summer, in the same place, in the person of the same man.

But first the scientists here must determine: Is the person in the grave George Yeardley?

Or someone else?

The answer, as research continues, may be months in coming.

It was clear from the bones that this was a robust man in his late 30s or early 40s. Yeardley, who served as governor of the colony three times, was about 40 when he died in 1627.

And, with his hands at his sides and not crossed over his pelvis, this looked like a special VIP burial. “This guy, I think, was definitely laid out so that people could see him before he was interred,” said Hartley, a senior archaeologist on the project.

But the Jamestown experts badly wanted to find the skeleton’s head, because DNA can most readily be retrieved from a part of the skull right in front of the ear, they said.

Ground penetrating radar imaging had indicated that the skull was likely present.

Archaeologists recover teeth from remains believed to be those of the leader of America’s first representative government assembly.
Timothy C. Wright/The Washington Post

But when the excavation began, it was soon clear that the skull was gone - deteriorated after being in the ground so long, or chopped off by a nearby burial.

“We were very deflated,” Givens said.

Then, about 10 a.m. Sunday, came Hartley’s discovery. Teeth can be a good source of DNA. Plus, hardened plaque on teeth, even 400 years old, can be examined for clues to diet and bacteria.

“When I hit the first tooth, you always kind of wait to make sure that, ‘Yes, this is exactly what I’m seeking,’” Hartley said later. “But the enamel was clear as day ... [and] pretty much within a couple seconds I had a second one.”

“I yelled, ‘Teeth!’” she said. (She wound up finding 10.)

She was relieved.

“We have a lot of world-renowned experts working with us on this,” she said. “And I wanted to make sure there was something for them to examine.”

One of the experts on site is Turi King, the geneticist and archaeologist from Britain’s University of Leicester who helped identify the remains of King Richard III when they were found under a parking lot in 2012.

She said she will help process DNA and try to help track down any Yeardley descendants to see whether their DNA matches that retrieved from the skeleton.

Archaeologists built a “clean room” to prevent DNA contamination of the site.
Timothy C. Wright/The Washington Post

The teeth proved to be key in another way. The Jamestown scientists remembered that last fall they had found part of a jaw and a skull in an adjacent grave that seemed unrelated to this dig. They wondered: Could those pieces be from the missing skull?

They retrieved the pieces from storage and on Monday discovered that the newly found teeth all fit into the jaw bone, said Michael Lavin, senior staff conservator at Jamestown Rediscovery. “It’s a home run,” he said. And it could enable a reconstruction of the face.

Now they have to see if they’re the remains of Yeardley.

Sir George Yeardley was not born to nobility.

Raised in London, the son of a businessman tailor, he became a soldier - “truly bred in [the] university of warre,” a friend wrote.

As a young officer, it is said he came to Virginia with nothing but his sword.

But he was among the first of millions of Europeans to find his fortune here.

In 1609, he was invited to join a nine-ship supply mission to Britain’s struggling colony in Virginia, James Towne.

The flotilla left Plymouth on June 2, but on July 24, about seven days’ sail from Cape Henry, Virginia, it ran into what was probably a hurricane.

Although the storm battered the ships for days, the passengers survived. Yeardley’s ship was beached at Bermuda. And he made his way to Jamestown in 1610.

Yeardley became a key figure in Jamestown, serving as the governor in 1616 before returning to England in 1617. He was reappointed governor in 1618 and was knighted by King James I that November.

He sailed back to Jamestown in 1619 bearing a historic set of instructions from the Virginia Company, which controlled the colony.

Using magnifying lenses, a forensics anthropologist from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History peers at a newly uncovered skeleton inside the historic church at Colonial Jamestown.
Timothy C. Wright/The Washington Post

His orders were to establish “a laudable form of government . . . [for] the people there inhabiting.”

Yeardley was to organize the outlying settlements into “one body corporate, and live under Equal and like Law,” his orders said.

In June, Yeardley sent word to the settlements: Send two “sufficient” men to Jamestown for an assembly, according to an upcoming book, “1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy,” by James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery.

On July 30, 1619, 30 men met in a church on the site where the dig is underway.

This was the first representative assembly in English America, historians say - an undertaking that has defined the United States and has endured for 399 years.

It “was one of the most important events . . . before the Revolution,” Horn writes. “Yet [it] is almost completely unknown to the general public.”

“The Assembly did not establish a fully-fledged form of common law,” Horn writes. And it “did not initiate a recognizably modern democracy.”

“But it . . . heralded a broadly representative form of government based on . . . [a] wide male franchise and the consent of the governed.”

But does this Jamestown grave contain the bones of Sir George?

Other VIPs would have gotten “high status” burials in a prime spot in the church: political leaders, clergymen.

Yeardley was the colony’s governor when he died, and would have gotten a special burial place in the church.

And he was a knight, Horn notes. A mysterious tomb slab bearing the imprint of decorations typical of a knight’s tomb was found at the site in the early 1900s.

Horn believes the black limestone tomb slab was probably Yeardley’s and once rested over the grave being excavated.

It’s in the middle aisle of the church, just before the altar - “a pretty prime spot to be buried,” said archaeologist Hartley, a perfect spot for “a state burial.”

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