Archaeologists probing more than 3 feet below the footprint of Jamestown’s historic 1617 church have found skeletal remains that may be linked to a crucial figure in the birth of two of English America’s most defining political, economic and social institutions.
Buried here in 1627, Sir George Yeardley was governor of Virginia when he called and then presided over the first representative assembly in the New World, which met inside the church on July 30, 1619.
Within a few weeks he was making history again, bringing more than a half-dozen of the first Africans recorded in English America from a Dutch ship anchored off Old Point Comfort to work in his household on Jamestown Island.
But despite his prominence in these momentous events — and a prestigious burial place in the church’s center aisle — it took 20 months of painstaking excavation through a jumbled-up puzzle of brick, plaster, dirt and 10 other grave shafts before archaeologists could find him.
Six to eight more months will be required before a team that includes two of world’s most prominent forensic and genetics scientists can complete the tests needed to confirm his identity through a DNA match with modern-day relatives.
“This is the closest thing we have to a king in the New World,” said Jamestown Rediscovery Director of Archaeology David Givens, describing Yeardley’s pivotal role in founding American democracy and slavery.
“And we found him buried just a few steps away from where he sat when the first assembly met here almost 400 years ago.”
Undertaken as part of the preparations for the 400th anniversary of the first assembly in 1619, the excavation began in November 2016 and unearthed the lost footprint of the 1617 church relatively quickly.
But the long history of building and rebuilding at the site — which included both a later 17th-century church and the Memorial Church erected for the Jamestown Tercentennial in 1907 — left senior staff archaeologist Mary Anna Hartley and her team with the challenging task of sifting through a site that had been churned up and disturbed many times since the original church was erected.
Adding to the confusion of features was a pioneering archaeological dig conducted by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities — now known as Preservation Virginia — in the early 1900s.
Then there was the discovery that the most elaborate grave marker found inside the church’s footprint had been moved.
Not until after a year of work did they expose the first inkling of what appeared to be a grave shaft located in a prime position in the middle of the church’s center aisle, Hartley said.
Among the clues was a long-buried band of bricks laid in a distinctive herringbone pattern, which over time had slumped down into the grave shaft, been covered up and forgotten.
Equally encouraging was the telltale profile that emerged in the dirt as they excavated a later burial, which had overlapped and obscured part of the promising-looking grave.
Two feet below the surface, they finally uncovered the remains of a coffin through the stains left by the iron nails.
But the most compelling lead came from a ground-penetrating radar study conducted in June by Boston-based GSSI, which Givens had worked with previously while searching for evidence of an early African who lived in a household just a few hundred yards away.
“The big surprise came when they started to do the GPR,” Hartley says.
“After all that digging, we got the results back within a few hours — and that gave us a road map for the excavation. It showed us not just the bones but the outline of the individual buried in the grave.”
Among the experts Givens contacted first to help with this weekend’s critical excavation was famed forensic anthropologist Douglas W. Owsley, who previously worked with Jamestown on numerous projects, including the 2013 study that confirmed evidence of survival cannibalism among the settlers during the so-called “Starving Time” of 1609-10.
He also called prominent archaeo-geneticist Turi King of the University of Leicester in England, who led the widely publicized 2014 study that identified a set of human remains unearthed in a Leicester parking lot as those of King Richard III.
“One of the biggest things about working with ancient DNA is the danger of contaminating it with modern DNA. It’s very fragmented and damaged,” King said Tuesday, describing the reason she recommended not only the masks, gloves and hooded coveralls the archaeologists wore but also the isolation enclosure built around the excavation site.
“All you have to do to breathe and it can be contaminated. Your DNA swamps out whatever signal is left.”
Beginning at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, Givens and Hartley worked alongside Jamestown conservator Michael Lavin and staff archaeologist Bob Chartrand through some 15 hours of excavation.
The long hours continued on Sunday, with Owsley and King assisting, but well before then the team realized they had misinterpreted the images generated by the ground-penetrating radar.
“We couldn’t find a cranium — only a soil stain,” Hartley recalled Tuesday.
“Then I remembered that we had found a disarticulated cranium in the overlapping grave — and it was still in our collection. We also started finding teeth — and that made us all very excited.”
Removing the C1 vertebrae found among the remains, the team took it to the lab, where “it fit onto the cranium like a glove — so we knew it was right,” Givens said.
The recovered teeth fit into place smoothly and cleanly, too, providing still more evidence that the cranium and skeletal remains came from the same individual.
“The best, most exciting thing about the grave was how clean it was,” Hartley said.
“All the other graves we’ve found have been later — and they were all filled up with plaster and debris from the church.”
Owsley and King continued to take samples through Monday for the battery of tests that will be conducted at labs in England and the U.S., including the forensics lab of the FBI.
In addition to removing tissue from the cranium and the teeth, the team recovered dental plaque residues that will be analyzed at the Medical College of Virginia in an attempt to determine what might have caused Yeardley’s death, Givens said.
Work will continue inside the church, where Hartley and her team still have numerous puzzles to sort out before the project is over.
But if all the newly recovered evidence leads where they think, the mystery of Yeardley’s burial place — which originally was marked by the elaborate headstone that was later moved — is close to being solved.
“As an organization, we’ve been looking for this since 1901,” Hartley said, describing the pioneering digs conducted by Jamestown Rediscovery’s parent organization.
“That’s when they found the headstone they called ‘the Knight’s Tomb.’ And more than 100 years later we think we’ve found the individual whose grave it marked.”
Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.