Reading History Backwards

Jamestowne Island’s Director of Archeological Research and Interpretation Bill Kelso says that choosing which historic sites to protect from deterioration of all kinds is a matter of reading history backwards. We must consider “What are the priorities today, what are the legacies today of our history? And then look to what areas contributed.”

Learn more: Jamestown Rediscovery


Untitled Document

Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Jamestown Island is an ongoing source of historic discoveries. For a site that’s 400 years old, it’s still fertile soil that yields groundbreaking finds from four centuries and raises new questions every day. It’s an American treasure, but it’s under threat. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists says that Jamestown Island will be under water by the end of the century. Joining us now is Bill Kelso, Director of Archeological Research and Interpretation with Jamestown Rediscovery. Dr. Kelso, thank you for being here today.

Kelso: Good morning.

Harmony: Well, we appreciate you coming up here. Sounds like there’s a lot of work going on at Jamestown. Before we start talking about this report that’s come out, maybe for folks that aren’t familiar with the work you do at Jamestown Island, can you tell us briefly what you guys are up to down there? Why it’s such an important site.

Kelso: Well, Jamestown is the first permanent English settlement, and it’s where the first representative assembly met and it’s where rule of law came to this continent. We’re bringing that story to life by seeing what’s left in the ground that tells about the daily lives of the people that lived there. So in 20 years of excavations, we’ve laid bare one thing where we found where the fort was located and it had been thought to have been washed into the river -- speaking of river washing -- which it didn’t up to this point and we have found over two million artifacts to go with it.

Harmony: So that brings us up to the report of the Union of Concerned Scientists telling us that Jamestown will be under water. Tell us about that issue.

Kelso: Well the predicted rise of sea level varies quite a bit by who’s actually talking about it. Jamestown is a low-lying island so therefore it’s a concern. It’s not exactly “the sky is falling,” however, because where we found the James Fort, the 1607 earliest settlement part of Jamestown and actually the town site is relatively high ground on the island.

But I know from my own experience, having gone through Hurricane Isabel, that a lot of the island goes underwater when that happens. That was a nine-foot surge of water that came in, nine feet above sea level. While it didn’t, in fact, the fort site at all which is 15 feet above sea level, it did cut a lot of things off from connecting to the mainland which is a worry.

Harmony: So you’ve seen almost a predictor of what that might look like?

Kelso: Yeah, a little bit more. I think the most pessimistic estimate I’ve read, and this is from reading National Geographic, there was a story on that, is 6.6 feet by the end of the century. So it won’t drown and take away some of the major parts of the archeological remains, areas where the archeological remains are, but it still would limit access.

My experience with what’s going on as far as sea level rise is kind of interesting in that we have dug a well, and old well, that was put in probably in 1610 or ‘11 and can tell how much, at least the ground water has risen in four centuries. And it’s two feet; it’s like six inches a century up to this point. Now, you know, if that stays constant we’re safe for a long, long time. Reason we can tell is the way the wood, this is wood-lined well, and the way the wood decayed. Wood constantly under water doesn’t decay at all and then wood that is partially underwater and then gets wet is going to have deteriorated some. So we can tell there’s two feet of deterioration. But that doesn’t necessarily mean anything with the actual sea level rise, I guess, although it is affected.

Harmony: Tell me, archeologically, if you’re looking at an issue like sea level rise on an island, what are some of the measures you might take to try to maybe speed-excavate some of those areas that you think might be under threat? Is there any plan to try to prioritize those areas that you think might be underwater in 50 or 100 years?

Kelso: Our philosophy has been -- in 20 years of excavation down there -- is that the artifacts aren’t going to be there. The burials are going to be gone. Everything deteriorates anyway. Not underwater, but just from deterioration. So our philosophy has been, you know, this is the one good chance of finding what’s there and has nothing to do with sea level rise.

But then we put that into the equation, it would limit priority areas and then also put the lowest lying area on the priority. And actually as we’ve evolved, we are heading into lower areas already, you know, so and looking very interesting. Like the fort is huge. It’s not just this little thing that we thought it was. So, you know, we’re already in a way reacting to both just regular deterioration and the predicted sea level rise.

Harmony: Seems like there are always surprises anywhere you dig, but what are some of the features or artifacts you might anticipate finding in lower-lying areas?

Kelso: Well right now, we’re finding that the one-acre fort that we spent a long time uncovering was, you know the focus, the concentration of occupation was expanded fairly early and it may have encompassed as much as 20 acres. So that’s where people were living. They’ll be remains of houses and other wells, probably other deposits of artifacts scattered about in the 20 acres, but some of that is low-lying, so we will certainly deal with that first if these predictions are correct.

Harmony: Do you ever just feel like you’ll never get your hands around it all? It seems like time you start a new area you find something of such richness. You find a new well or a new building, a new church. Do you feel like you’re racing it against time anyways?

Kelso: Yes, I think archeology has a certain sense of urgency no matter what, you know. It’s because of deterioration, it is because of funding, all kinds of things, you know, go in to that. But yeah, I was beginning to feel like, well every year I feel like we’re not going to trump what we found the year before and then we do. And this discovery of the larger, larger fort is its huge because, again, we spent 20 years focusing on one acre and now we find it’s a 20-acre site.

And it’s being the property that’s privately owned on the island. Now the Park Service may have another entire agenda, and they own the later town site and we’re just a private non-profit on the western end of the island.

Harmony: When you hear about the island being under threat like this, what’s your response to that? What’s your reaction? Do you want to build up the beach; do you just take it in stride as part of the game of archeology? How do you approach it?

Kelso: Well I’ve been to the Netherlands, you know, and they know how to handle this. They live below sea level already, you know, and they know how to handle it. And I think measures could be done to fend this off for centuries, I would think. And who knows if it may reverse. And in the meantime you’ve got to think, “Well, what can we save and, you know, how much is it worth?” If Jamestown is worth that much to the history of America, which I think it is, the legacy of America, then, you know, let’s put in some cofferdams and things around to save what’s there.

Harmony: And from a larger perspective, there are probably historic sites around the world that are under threat from a number of factors. So when we consider Jamestown as part of that picture, I think you’ve alluded to this already, that it is a very important site to the founding of America to the identity of the country. How do we consider an issue like this in the context of sort of global archeological sites and the threats that they might be under?

Kelso: Well, the first consideration, I think, is reading history backwards in a sense. You know, say, “Ok, what are the priorities today, you know, what are the legacies today of our history?” And then look to what areas contributed. Certainly Jamestown did because, you know, we’re speaking English right now; you know there’s a lot of culture that went. There was a British empire that came over that. And this is the first really settlement out of England over the British Empire and the legacies are there.

There’s also a Spanish legacy, and I know from personal experience I’m now on a Board to study a site called Santa Elena, which is in South Carolina. And it’s really low. That was the capital of Spanish America for 20 years before St. Augustine even. It was settled before, but it was a capital. And that, I think, is like something like six feet above sea level and, you know, that’s a real threat there. And anything in most of our earliest sites are along the coast and that’s what’s threatened obviously.

Harmony: So if we’re lovers of history, if we’re interested in archeology, what can we do? We know what you’re doing, but is there anything that we can do?

Kelso: Well, I think you can support funding for some of these measures that, you know, could be done just to protect the shoreline. And I think it would be great if everyone would come and visit while they can to Jamestown. And that helps us because there’s a fee to get in and, you know, that helps support our project. Because we don’t have any support from tax money from state or local or, some local, but state or federal even or an enclave in the park service which is kind of ironic, but yes, we want people to come and see it and maybe there is this sense of urgency there.

Harmony: Find out more about how to visit and what the work that goes on at Historic Jamestown at your website at We hope folks will visit the site as well as visit you physically out on the island.

Kelso: Yes, and see the moment of discovery as we call it; it happens every day.

Harmony: Dr. Kelso, it’s been a privilege to have you back on the show today. It’s always exciting to hear about the work that’s happening at Jamestown and really changing what we know about the origin of this country with every little spade full of soil that comes up, so thank you for being here today.

Kelso: You’re welcome.




  1. Always good to hear from Dr. Kelso and he always seems to have new bits of information about discoveries at Jamestown.

  2. […] While the portion of land containing the buried remains of the original fort and the existing church tower seem safe from rising water for now—they’re 15 feet above sea level—many outlying areas that hold potentially valuable archaeological evidence may be underwater soon. Harmony Hunter explores the threat to Jamestown Island posed by rising seas with Preservation Virginia archaeologist Bill Kelso in this Past & Present podcast. […]

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