The most impartial chronicle of Jamestown Settlement is in its trash. Curator Bly Straube explains.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes." I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.
Today, I'm talking with Bly Straube, who is curator for the Jamestown Rediscovery project. Bly's work is highlighted in the October 11th Electronic Field Trip, "Jamestown Unearthed," a program that examines how new discoveries and evolving technologies continue to improve our understanding of the past.
I don't know much about archaeology, but I'm always fascinated that you can reconstruct so much of the stuff you find – and know what is.
Bly Straube: Yes, well, we use a lot of data from people who have come before us, so we're building continually on work that's been done in the past. Today, in today's age, with the computer, we can take digital photographs of things and send them to researchers all over the world. I have a whole network of people, like me, who specialize in this time period, the early 17th century. I'll say, "Have you ever seen one of these?" Usually I'll get an answer back. It's wonderful how we can all help each other that way.
Lloyd: Early 17th … where else would people care about this particular period?
Bly: Well, we have no real precedent here in America. The early settlements are Spanish – they're a bit different. So, my closest is England, especially London, because most of our early material comes directly from London. We're like a kind of mini-London here. There are a lot of parallels.
Lloyd: Of course there would be, because all the people are basically from London.
Bly: A lot of them, yes. The thing is that they're being supplied by the merchants from London. The merchants hope to make a profit off of this deal, so they get in on the ground floor, and do the supplying.
Lloyd: What's the most common thing you find?
Bly: Gosh. We find a lot of nails. We find a lot of tobacco pipes; they enjoyed their tobacco. I guess that's probably about the most common.
Lloyd: Were the nails made here?
Bly: No, not in the beginning. Although, we do have evidence of nail rod, which is the raw material you use to make nails, as early as about 1612, '13, something like that. So, quite early on.
Lloyd: And I know you find guns. I suppose I should mention, we are in the vault where things are stored. But, you look around, and you see all these shards of pots and little pieces of things. I heard you telling somebody that there's a fragment of cloth that was underwear?
Bly: Yes, we were very surprised to find several pieces of folded fabric. After examining it, we found that it is linen. Linen is commonly used, and this type of linen, for undergarments.
Lloyd: Doesn't cloth normally just kind of rot?
Bly: It does. We were so totally surprised by it. We thought there must be some treatment to the material that helped preserve it, or it was just something it was buried with. It's just unheard of to have this survive without it being in a well, in an anaerobic – an environment without free oxygen – that would cause it to deteriorate.
Lloyd: If someone had told me they had found some cloth, I would laugh and say, "It's from last week."
Bly: (Laughs.) The next thing we need is some writing on paper that says, "John Smith was here," or something.
Lloyd: I did read, in the newspaper, the Daily Press, recently I think, earlier this month, about having found a roofing tile, or a slate with some calculations on it?
Bly: Yes, because we don't find paper; that rots away. This was really a fun find for us, because it shows someone in the fort's hand actually making these marks. It is a piece of slate where they've gridded it out, and they've got numbers, ones and zeros, in different order. It looks like they were either playing a game and keeping track of who's winning each hand, or perhaps tallying up goods.
Lloyd: Ones and zeros, maybe figuring out a computer?
Bly: (Laughs.) Exactly, analog system, right.
Lloyd: I bet they're going to be surprised to know they had bits and bytes in those days. Are you looking for anything specific, or are you looking for what you can find?
Bly: We are looking to understand the early 17th century. You can't do that with just one hole, one small area. The more we find, the more we uncover of James Fort, the more we're getting the complete picture, and we're changing our minds about certain things.
For instance, we have some objects that reflect Catholic presence, or people of the Catholic faith, in the way of crucifixes, which was a real surprise to us. You know, the Anglicans who were here at Jamestown were not permitted to put the pope above the king. The Church of England is supposed to be the religion that you adhere to here. We started finding these Catholic materials, and in particular, crucifixes made of jet, which is a material that was mined in Spain, and very popular for making religious items. We have found not only one jet crucifix, but three identical. Which, to me, does not speak to kind of random loss by colonists who were at Jamestown. Instead, it's suggesting a deeper issue, a deeper question. It looks like they're all coming from the same place, they maybe were all acquired at the same time.
Lloyd: Well, I know there were some Spanish Catholics who had a settlement, not here, but near enough that they might have.
Bly: The Jesuit mission, which has never been located – perhaps the colonists found it, who knows? (Laughs.)
Lloyd: That would be something, because that was wiped out a good 50, 60 years before Jamestown was started, right?
Bly: Right. But we also know that there were Jesuits who were brought here to Jamestown in 1613 by the English. A man by the name of Argall went up to a place that is now Maine. There was a settlement there of French Jesuits, and he wiped it out and brought three of the Jesuits back to Jamestown. Perhaps they relate to that.
Lloyd: I had never heard that there was a Jesuit at Jamestown. That's brand-new to me.
Bly: They were prisoners.
Lloyd: You have learned so much more since the site of Jamestown Fort, or James Fort has been found. What has it done to your store of knowledge, how much more do you know now than you knew in 1990?
Bly: Oh, gosh. The main thing is that we've found that the story that we've been repeating year, after year, after year about Jamestown has a lot of holes in it. It's not really an accurate portrayal of what life was like here. That's been kind of exciting to uncover what we feel is the truth, or approaching more closely to the truth.
What we're finding is, basically, the trash. Things that people have lost or thrown away on purpose. They're not doing that with any particular bias, as they would if they were writing a letter home, or an account, or journal, or they're either trying to impress the investors, so they sort of puff up themselves and make things look better than they are, or blame people for things that they shouldn't, necessarily.
So, with the artifacts – if you can learn to understand the stories that they have to tell, you understand what kind of context they originally came from, what they meant to the people who used them – you can read them just like you can an account from the past. So we kind of look at this as a chest full of these papers, of these notes, of these letters, that are telling us things of the past that we never would have known from the written record. It's getting the evidence of the people who couldn't write: the poor people, the women, the children. Everybody is represented in this material.
We're finding stories such as, "Jamestown failed because it was populated by a bunch of lazy gentlemen," is kind of a broad brush to kind of paint the whole early 17th century with.
Lloyd: I like that story.
Bly: Well, we don't, because we are finding so many crafts and industries at work. We're finding what we call "the fallout" of all this activity that's going on. If you really think about it, if you were a London merchant, and you were bankrolling this enterprise, would you send the most idiotic, stupid people that you could find to make that money for you? No, you'd look around for talented people who knew how to work, and how to do whatever they were being sent to do, whether it was looking for plants they could turn into medicines, or into expensive perfumes, or looking for gold and silver. It's a totally different picture.
Lloyd: One thing I have always heard, and I have not heard any different lately, is that John Smith was probably a quite successful and good sort of mercenary and leader of men, but he and the truth were not fast buddies. Quite often, he would inflate his role, or as it got farther and farther away, he would inflate it even more. Have ya'll found that to be?
Bly: We're quite fond of John Smith, actually, and find that a lot of what he has said really is true, really approaches the truth. It's true he embellished a lot. It's hard to believe all his fanciful stories of being a slave, and becoming free and all that. But, you have to think of the time, the age. He was a man of his age, of his time.
Lloyd: When do you think Jamestown Island will have given up the secrets it has – ever? Or will you always find things, depending on where you put your shovel in the ground?
Bly: I do feel there is a lot to find. The National Park Service actually funded a survey of the island, away from the fort area, to look at other habitation sites. Quite a few were found, including Native American sites that were here before the English Settlement. If there is the funding, and people are willing, there is plenty still to find here on the island.
Lloyd:That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. The Electronic Field Trip "Jamestown Unearthed" airs October 11th on local Public Broadcasting Stations, and on www.history.org/trips. For future podcasts, check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.