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HomeNewsIs it Gosnold? Quest to Identify Jamestown Mystery Captain Continues
Is it Gosnold? Quest to Identify Jamestown Mystery Captain Continues

A digital facial reconstruction based on the skull of the 17th century Jamestown captain believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold. Developed by Keith Kasnot, Kasnot Medical Illustration, Inc.
A digital facial reconstruction based on the skull of the 17th century Jamestown captain believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold. Developed by Keith Kasnot, Kasnot Medical Illustration, Inc.
JAMESTOWN, Virginia Without confirmation from DNA, researchers are conducting further studies to test their theory that the mysterious Jamestown Captain, who was buried 400 years ago in Jamestown, Virginia, is Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, a founding father of America. A digital facial reconstruction has also been developed.

"Gosnold was the primary force behind the expedition to Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, but his efforts have, for the most part, been lost to history. As we approach the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown in 2007, this unexpected discovery gives us an opportunity to recognize his leadership and contribution to the beginning of America as we know it today," said Dr. William Kelso, director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne.

Ironically, since there are no other known tests that can confirm the captain's identity, Kelso said research will now be used to rule out the possibility that he is Gosnold. For example, an oxygen and strontium test on one of the captain's teeth will be conducted soon with British funding to help determine his place of birth. Minerals from drinking water are deposited in our teeth as they form during infancy and leave a chemical signature that can be correlated to ground water in various regions of the UK. If the test shows that he was born in an area that does not match Suffolk that may prove that he is not Gosnold.

Results from tests recently conducted on bone samples confirmed that the Jamestown Captain was an immigrant to America. Stable isotope readings indicate that he ate a diet rich in wheat as opposed to an American corn diet. "This verifies that he could have been among the early settlers, and that he did not live at Jamestown for an extended period," Kelso said, noting that Gosnold died within three months of arriving.

Led by Kelso, archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne discovered the captain's remains in 2002 during a major on-going archaeological excavation at the James Fort site conducted in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007. They attempted to confirm his identity last June, by comparing DNA with Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, who is buried at All Saints Church in Shelley, England.

A digital rendering of the skull of the 17th century Jamestown captain believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold. Developed by Keith Kasnot, Kasnot Medical Illustration, Inc.
A digital rendering of the skull of the 17th century Jamestown captain believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold. Developed by Keith Kasnot, Kasnot Medical Illustration, Inc.
It was the first time the Church of England allowed DNA sampling of a burial for scientific and historical purposes. Unfortunately, the DNA did not match, possibly because other tests suggest it was not from his sister, Kelso said. Elizabeth's coffin was not marked and despite careful historical and archaeological research to pinpoint the location of her remains, bone histology (osteon counts) and dental analysis revealed that the Shelley woman was probably too young to have been Elizabeth.

Elizabeth's age at death is estimated to have been 68 to 72 years based on archival information. Douglas Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, who directed the forensic testing, said that dental aging tests indicate that the Shelley woman was possibly 39 to 43 years of age when she died, and that more reliable bone histology tests indicate that she was about 46 years old.

"We relied on available methods that were conducted by experienced analysts who worked blind (i.e., with no knowledge as to the desired result). Both tests show correspondence indicating middle age, with no evidence indicating an age of around 70 years," Owsley said.

Subsequently, Church officials requested Carbon 14 tests which indicate that the Shelley woman died in 1690, plus or minus 50 years. This supports the possibility that she could have been Elizabeth who died in 1646. It does, however, effectively rule out Anne Framlingham, the identity suggested for the Shelley remains by British historians when the results of the DNA comparison were first made public, as she died in the 1590s.

After reviewing all of the results, members of the Advisory Panel on the Archaeology of Christian Burials in England (APACBE) recently concluded that the identification of the exhumed woman as Elizabeth Tilney should not be ruled out. They propose that the Shelley woman may have been older because studies of English burials at Christ Church Spitalfields have revealed a general tendency of aging methods to under-age older individuals. They also point to the difficulty of aging older adults with any accuracy.

"We are discussing the advisory panel's interpretation with researchers in an effort to reconcile the differences," Kelso said. "Until questions about these new interpretations are answered and we can learn more from further tests, we will continue to rely on the historical and archaeological evidence that so far tips the scale to Gosnold."

The most compelling piece of evidence that archaeologists have found Gosnold's grave was the discovery of a decorative captain's leading staff that was ceremoniously placed along one edge of the coffin lid. "We have never found any other ceremonial objects in Jamestown burials, so we know this was someone very special," Kelso said. He added that coffin burials were traditionally used for people of higher status.

The Jamestown Captain is also the same age as Gosnold when he died. Owsley determined that he was a European male who died in his mid-to late-30s. Gosnold was 36 when he was buried in 1607 at Jamestown, Virginia.

Archaeologists found the burial under a pit filled with artifacts that date to the 1630s and an earlier post hole which suggests that the interment was long forgotten and was probably from the early years of the settlement. It was also aligned with the west wall of the 1607 fort.

Capt. John Smith credits Gosnold as the prime mover of the colonization of Virginia. Gosnold was the principal promoter and vice-admiral leader of the Jamestown expedition. On April 10, 1606, Gosnold obtained an exclusive charter from King James for the Virginia Company to settle Virginia, and he was captain of the Godspeed, one of three ships in the fleet and served as one of the six members of the original governing council. Gosnold is considered one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization. He also explored New England, named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, and colonized one of the Elizabeth Isles.

The Gosnold discovery and forensic research will be exhibited in the Archaearium, a new interpretive experience at Historic Jamestowne that will showcase the archaeological discoveries when it opens in the spring of 2006. The results of the burial study will also be included in a larger study of other Jamestown and Chesapeake area 17th-century burials conducted by Owsley at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History. The Smithsonian Institution plans to open an exhibit on that research in the fall of 2007.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, a full size replica of Gosnold's ship, the Godspeed, will sail from May through August 2006 to six major East Coast ports including Boston, Mass.; New York City, NY; Alexandria, Va.; Baltimore, Md.; Philadelphia, Pa.; and Newport, RI. Visiting the ports at the same time will be a free exhibition featuring live music, children's entertainment, historical displays and interactive education. The Godspeed will also retrace the settlers' voyage up the James River in the spring of 2007, stopping at several communities where festivals and special events will be held.

Other signature events will feature a national teach-in, special presentations about the European, Virginia Indian and African American experience, forums on the future of democracy, as well as the 225th anniversary of Yorktown in October 2006. The premiere signature event will be America's Anniversary Weekend at the Jamestown sites, May 11-13, 2007. The President and First Lady, Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the Royal Family have been invited to participate in this three-day event which will feature pageantry, musical performances, cultural presentations and celebrity appearances.

In addition, throughout 2007, communities across Virginia will present festivals, new exhibits, educational programs, music and live performances. Virginia will also be featured in the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.

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