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HomeThe DigOctober 2003
Diagram of James Fort and Excavations
West Palisade and Bulwark
Screen Full of Artifacts from Western-Bulwark Area
1607 JAMES FORT TAKES SHAPE: Archaeologists Discover North Bulwark and West Palisade

APVA's Director of Archaeology, Bill Kelso Describes the Findings Along the West PalisadeArchaeologists recently pinpointed the elusive western wall and north corner of the 1607 James Fort at Historic Jamestowne in Jamestown, Virginia, defining for the first time the true shape and size of the first fort in the first permanent English Settlement in America.

"This is a huge find," according to Dr. William Kelso, director of archaeology for APVA Preservation Virginia. "Now we know where the heart is, the center of the Colonial effort, the bulls-eye. We know exactly where to dig now, and we will focus our time and resources on uncovering and analyzing the interior of the James Fort."

As long as weather permits, archaeologists will continue digging inside the west wall of the fort and in the north bulwark area.

"We want to know more about the architecture of the fort," Kelso said. "Was there a town plan? Where were the public buildings? Was there a hierarchy of the gentlemen and the 'other sort' that was reflected in the architecture? All of these details can also tell us how the English adapted their European traditions with not only the natural, but the existing cultural environment of the Virginia Indians."

He said they have already found the remains of several interior buildings that appear to be barrack-style dwellings, but there should be a church and storeroom near the center as well as other public buildings, dwellings and wells.

"The evidence we uncover helps define Jamestown, which gives us a better opportunity to let Jamestown teach us what it means to be an American," he said. "This is the birthplace of modern America, and these were the people who began to mold our sense of national identity. Knowing more about Jamestown's beginnings is like understanding your childhood. It's the key to understanding how we came to be who we are as a nation today. Our language, form of government and system of economics all have their roots at Jamestown."

Kelso and a team of APVA Preservation Virginia archaeologists found the first evidence of the fort in the east corner in 1996, and searched for the rest of the fort from there. "It was hard to find because of ground disturbances that wiped out the remains of portions of the fort walls and features. We also interpreted the measurements reported by William Strachey, the secretary of the colony, differently than he intended. His measurements are based on where the mathematical line represented by the walls intersect in each corner, not the actual length of the walls between the bulwarks. The walls are shorter than we thought they were, and the size of the interior is not half an acre. It's twice as big. I've always wondered how you would fit all those people into a half an acre. Over 140 people were left here."

Archaeologist Jamie May at the North BulwarkThe dark linear stains of the west wall were found inside the Confederate Fort area near the well that was discovered last season, and the north bulwark was found underneath about six feet of dirt, near the outer edge of the earthworks next to a dirt road that runs through the site. "With so much soil disturbance in the area, it's amazing that the stains from the decayed posts are still there," Kelso said.

"Based on the archaeological evidence, uncovered this summer by the staff and the field school students, the original James Fort was about 1.1 acres, and all three walls of the triangle were palisades made with timber posts and upright logs. These were probably held together with wooden planks," Kelso said.

When the settlers were attacked by the Indians during the first few days of their arrival, they had to construct a fort quickly, so it makes sense that they would build a palisaded fort with side-by-side timber posts that provided adequate defense against the Indians, but required a minimum of carpentry, he explained.

"We also know from earlier discoveries that there was a demilune (half-moon) earthen fortification outside the east bulwark. This was part of the sophisticated defensive architecture of the fort, and adds to the emerging evidence that shows that the settlers were savvy military strategists, not necessarily the lazy, unprepared gentlemen of traditional history."

Kelso pointed out that the settlers chose the best location on the island for the fort, strategically placing it behind a bend in the river on high land to provide the best defense against their perceived enemy, the Spanish.

Portions of the fort also burned several times and were rebuilt during the first few years. Archaeologists have found the remains of charcoal in the north bulwark area, evidence of at least one fire.

Eventually, the fort was expanded to a five-sided fort as the settlement grew, and archaeologists have discovered evidence of palisade walls extending away from the original triangle near both of the bulwarks that may be the outline of the expanded fort, as well as disturbances in the earth where posts in the triangular palisade were removed, as the fort grew in size.

Archaeologists David Givens and Carter Hudgins at the West BulwarkKelso said recent digging confirmed that most of the west bulwark was eroded away by the James River, but archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a short section of a bulwark moat just above the sea wall that escaped erosion by the river.

The discovery also means that the staff will re-evaluate earlier finds based on whether they were located within the triangular fort walls or outside of them. For example, last winter, the team excavated a well and a high ranking burial which seemed to mark the center of the fort. If that was true, Kelso wondered if the original triangular fort was twice as big as they originally thought. Now with the west wall located more exactly, he knows that the well and the burial that may be Captain Bartholomew Gosnold are outside the triangular James Fort.

"That's archaeology," Kelso said. "You base your hypothesis on the best information you have at the time, and it can be refined with the next discovery. That's why this is so exciting, we can finally connect the dots and define the true shape and size of James Fort. Knowing that will help us date everything we find inside the James Fort site."

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