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HomeNewsHistoric Jamestowne Dig Season Ends as High-Tech Imagery and Handwriting Analysis Continue to Decipher 400-Year-Old Mystery
Historic Jamestowne Dig Season Ends as High-Tech Imagery and Handwriting Analysis Continue to Decipher 400-Year-Old Mystery

January 6, 2010

Historic Jamestowne archaeologists excavating the remnants of the 1610 artifact-rich fill in the central well at James Fort
Excavations at Historic Jamestowne ended in early December as archaeologists reached the barrel-lined bottom of a well most likely built in 1609 under the direction of Captain John Smith. It contained thousands of artifacts including a remarkable 400 year old slate tablet deposited after the well water went bad during the starving time 1609-1610. Dr. William Kelso, Director of Research and Interpretation at Historic Jamestowne said "recent analysis of writing and pictures drawn on the slate are proving to render it one of the most significant archaeological artifacts found on an American historical site. The slateís numerous but faint inscriptions of animals, people, symbols, numbers, words and sentences are slowly beginning to unravel its messages."

Jamestown slate tablet showing faint inscriptions (left) and the partially surviving and recently enhanced script (right) found in the 1610 James Fort central well
The well's slate is still undergoing a variety of non-destructive analytical tests slowly transforming the inscriptions and revealing what they meant. The analysis requires both art and science. Initially, staff artist, Jamie May, and conservator, Michael Lavin, artistically enhanced the faint markings and NASA scientists produced 3 dimensional x-rays of the slate (using a micro-focus computed tomography x-ray system) in an attempt to look at the slate surfaces in "layers". The most recent tests were conducted by scientists at the Smithsonian Institutionís Museum Conservation Institute. There, conservators produced high resolution photographs using different light sources and focal lengths to exaggerate grooves that make up the slate's inscriptions. Another Institute test, using X-Ray fluorescence, was used to determine the geological profile of the slate which may help locate the European source of the stone.

Close-up photo of Jamestown slate tablet photo showing inscriptions enhanced by the Reflectance Transformation Imagery process
An expert in Elizabethan script at the Folger Shakespeare Library and interested historians have teamed to help the archaeologists begin to read some of the slate's mysterious cursive handwriting. So far, this analysis indicates that much of the writing appears to be written in "Secretary Hand" a type of script developed during the early sixteenth century for legal records and some private use. There is also the possibility that part of the writing is in code or a phonetic script invented in the 16th century to teach Englishmen how to pronounce Virginia Indian words.

Scientists inspecting Jamestown slate tablet during tests conducted at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute
The winter months will also be used by the Jamestown Rediscovery team to analyze, conserve and restore the rest of the enormous and unprecedented well artifact collection. Bly Straube, Senior Curator said "the finds from this context have many stories to tell from the ca. 1609-1610 time period at Jamestown. These include a coral teething stick belonging to one of the colony's first babies, exotic seashells that Sea Venture shipwreck survivors picked up in Bermuda, and dozens of butchered horse and dog bones from Starving Time meals."

Stay tuned for Jamestown Rediscovery updates from Historic Jamestowne as the researchers continue to unravel the meaning of the objects that the first struggling James Fort settlers left behind. You can also follow progress of the archaeologists on the Historic Jamestowne website: www.historicjamestowne.org. Active excavation will resume in April and continue through October.

If You Go

Historic Jamestowne, an Official Preservation Virginia Historic Site, offers a wealth of activities for exploring the first permanent English settlement in North America. Visitors can share the moment of discovery with archaeologists and witness archaeology-in-action at the 1607 James Fort excavation April-October; learn about the Jamestown Rediscovery excavation at the Nathalie P. and Alan M. Voorhees Archaearium, the site's archaeology museum; tour the original 17th-century church tower and reconstructed 17th-century Jamestown Memorial Church; and take a walking tour with a Park Ranger through the New Towne area along the scenic James River. Entrance to the site is open from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Historic Jamestowne Visitor Center and Voorhees Archaearium are open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., and the grounds remain open until dusk.

Historic Jamestowne is jointly administered by Preservation Virginia and the National Park Service and preserves the original site of the first permanent English settlement in the New World. Admission is $10.00 for adults and includes admission to Yorktown Battlefield for seven consecutive days. Children under age 16 are free. National Park Service and federal recreation passes are also honored. For further information, visit www.HistoricJamestowne.org or call (757) 229-0412 or (757) 229-1733.

Press Contact:
Tina Calhoun
Director of Marketing and Public Relations
Preservation Virginia
204 West Franklin Street
Richmond, Virginia 23220

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