The John Smith Well

John Smith

Discovery continues at Virginia’s James Fort, site of America’s first permanent English settlement. Archaeologist Bill Kelso gets to the bottom of a 1609 well.

Learn more: Historic Jamestowne


Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I'm Harmony Hunter. We're on location today at Jamestown Island. I'm here with Bill Kelso, who is director of Archeology on Jamestown Island.

Last time we were together, it was 2007, and you had been excavating a cellar feature. What's happened in the meantime? What are you working on now?

Bill Kelso: Well our current focus has been on, what must be at this point, a well that John Smith commissioned to be constructed in 1609. The settlers began to figure out that the water was bad from the river and so that this was the solution.

What's so exciting about it is that it probably had a very short lifespan because of other circumstances that were going on in the colony. So these artifacts had accumulated during the first three years which were probably the most harsh and challenging years of the colony. And there it is, it just all piled in there--armor, arms, ceramics and some of the most unique artifacts I've ever seen.

Harmony: Now this is not the first well that you've found.

Bill: It's not the first well, but we needed to find, and we knew there was more than one inside the fort. Probably three actually, there’s a hint of the record saying there are three. We found one and it appeared that that was likely to be the second well that replaced the one I just mentioned that we're working on that went bad. So we found the second well first. And now we had to really prove that it was the second well by finding another one that dates earlier and that's what has happened.

Harmony: Now, you've got two wells: one is 1609 one is 1611. How are you able to tell a difference of two years?

Bill: That's very rare in historical archeology to be able to do that. But we can do that here because of the fact that we have looked, we've looked at what we call seal deposits. And then looking at the profile of the artifacts and beginning to see, in some cases, we're finding coins and other dated things that actually have dates on them. So that begins to make this profile.We've been doing so long we can tell what are the very first deposits and what things are after it.

In my mind, basically it comes down to clay tobacco pipe styles. The earliest ones are very distinctive and they've been found on other 1609 sites. One thing is, the earliest pipes are smallest and tobacco was very expensive and so people couldn't really light up for hours, so to speak. But the pipe, the bowl’s end gets slightly bigger and it's just a style thing, you know, it's just, you look at car models every year and it’s like that.

So this, it's clearly there's a switch. And we found a lot of those kinds of pipes in the second well. But in this well it’s all exclusively the kind that I think are the, you know, these are the earliest.

Harmony: How did you know where to look for these wells?

Bill: Well what our process has been, first to define the limits of the fort, and that took years. Now once that was done, the three sides of a triangle, we have just taken certain areas inside it, one area at time, exposed it and see what is there. We kind of felt like there was a well in the center of the fort and that's where we found this one, although the center to the colonists was a little off center from what mathematics would tell you is the center of the triangle.

So we had looked there years ago and didn't find anything. But we were within inches of this well. But how we can tell it, is that the soil that's filled in the hole after the hole is dug through natural clay and the material that's thrown in there, particularly garbage and trash that we found that was cleaned up, has a different color and texture than the surrounding soil. So it leaves what we call a soil stain that, in this case, kept on going down and down and down.

Harmony: You're saying that the well that you are excavating now is probably the John Smith well. Can you talk a little about John Smith? What is the significance of this well being the one that was dug when he was in charge? I guess I'm asking what was happening in the colony at that time and how can you see that reflected in what you're finding in the well?

Bill: Well in many ways this is reflective of the fact that he was more of a practical guy and that he isn't in charge of the colony, until later, not in 1607, he was in chains when he got here. And his pragmatism and his ability to adapt to the environment – it’s so important – you've got to think back the English mindset coming over here – not realizing what challenges there'd be in the environment, one of which is fresh water.

I always think the Powhatan, or the nearest village here, who met with the colonists when they first got in here said they landed, decided to set up the colony on Jamestown Island and the Virginia Indians said, "Oh great, take all the land you want, on the island." Because they knew there was no water here, there's no fresh water, there's no source and that was a real problem.

But Smith figured away, whoa, let’s just dig a well, you know, and it seemed, the puzzling thing is why did it take so long? We're talking about almost two and half years later when they finally figured out that they needed it. So why is it important? Well because it's an example of leadership that's realistic.

Harmony: What are you finding in this well that is different from the 1611 well, in terms of construction and artifacts?

Bill: The construction is interesting and different in that this was more than just a well. It was actually a building, a well house, or what we call a well house, was built fairly substantial 14 x 16 feet square and sunk down five feet before you even get to the part where they were drawing water. So it's a below ground place to draw the water from the next eight or ten feet below that, and that it must have had a roof over it.

So it's a building and a well and that is attached to a building, this is an unrecorded building, but in the records, but it was attached to a storehouse. We know from signs in the soil of where major post holes were put in to support a building, that it was attached to it, side by side, the storehouse. So this is a center building complex that was a surprise.

But we dug to the bottom or close to it and we're finding below the water table there are no artifacts and it's interesting in that sense. I think whereas the other well is loaded with things that had dropped in accidentally into the water, while they were still using the well. So, many things are very intact in the second well. In the first well, not so much or basically not at all.

Harmony: So, in the 1611 well you're finding artifacts in the bottom of it that are maybe vessels that were used to draw up water that accidentally got knocked in there, pitchers or mugs or something like that. So when you get below the water table that's something that, that sunk accidentally. But in the 1609 well that you're looking at now, you're saying, you're not finding anything that appears to have dropped in. All the artifacts came after the well had dried up?

Bill: Right, exactly right. Yeah and had been abandoned and probably for the second well.

Harmony: What other kind of remains or artifacts are being found in the 1609 well?

Bill: Arms, armor, ammunition, ceramics, glass, really interesting glass objects. Then there are a lot of unique things. The one thing I think is, I think it's the most important artifact found on an American historical site - all it is is a piece of slate. It's about five inches by eight inches square and very thin. But it had been used as a tablet, written on with a slate pencil, on slate, it's almost like chalk.

But written on and written on and over and over, and sideways and pictures and text and all kinds of things survive on it, in some degree or another. Because the slate - the person using it would never really would bear down on the pencil. It would leave a scratch that couldn't be erased - very faint, though. And, so it's like finding a book, and it's written on both sides and there are, I'm trying to think, maybe 21 different drawings of flowers and animals and symbols.

And then several lines of text - one side is a complete paragraph. Well there was a paragraph there, we're getting bits and pieces of what it was. We're just beginning to decipher the thing. It's so exciting because it's going to take a long time to be able to read it, character by character.

Harmony: It certainly is - amazingly interesting. Why do you feel that it could be the most significant archeological find?

Bill: I think because there is so much that you can interpret from this one particular thing. For example, the various pictures that are on it. A lot of it, they show birds, flowers They're looking at a strange and different place and they're trying to record everything, you know, to send back to England. Saying these are the kind of birds, and these are the kind of flowers, plants, you know, all of it.

And that, we haven't begun to really interpret these drawing and connect them to find, really identify which kind of bird is this, what kind of tree is that and so on. And so that's going to be ongoing and then just to read the text. It really personalizes the story of Jamestown.

That's what's so cool about it. You know, I think you can read about history and it's kind of non-personal and, you know this event happened and this movement was going on, you know, but then I think people want to connect with history. So that personal connection, boy, then history just comes alive.

Harmony: What's your next step in trying to decode the slate?

Bill: Well, we've taken it to the Institute of Conservation, Museum of Conservation, I’ve got to get this right, Smithsonian Division and we've tried reflecting light certain way - photography that they do - which will bring out more - it makes the scratches have a deeper impression to your eye - it's almost like 3D. In fact, then there is a 3D microscope, that we’re looking at to see if we can figure out, does the drawing come before the writing, that comes before the flower, you know, just to get a chronology of the use of the slate. So we're into that.

Harmony: How can people follow this story if they want to keep up with your progress and decoding the message?

Bill: We're documenting each step of the research and we have a website that is very complete and updated once a month. We often say, you know, it's not what we find, but what we find out. So that’s the deal. Harmony: Bill, thanks so much for being with us and if folks want to follow this on the website, that's - that's Jamestowne with an “e” - if you want to find out more about this. Thanks so much for being with us today.

Bill: Ok, my pleasure.

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