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HomeNewsDNA Results Disappointing: Researchers Still Confident Jamestown Mystery Captain is Gosnold
DNA Results Disappointing: Researchers Still Confident Jamestown Mystery Captain is Gosnold

A digital facial reconstruction based on the skull of the 17th century Jamestown captain believed to be Bartholomew Gosnold is being 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 is being developed by Keith Kasnot, Kasnot Medical Illustration, Inc.
JAMESTOWN, Virginia Ė British and American scientists were surprised and disappointed to learn that DNA from a woman buried in Shelley church in Suffolk, England, could not be used to conclusively identify the remains of a 17th-century captain discovered in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in America. Nevertheless, they remain confident, that they have found the grave of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold, a leader of the Jamestown expedition and a founding father of America.

Dr. William Kelso, director of archaeology for APVA Preservation Virginia at Historic Jamestowne, said, We succeeded in obtaining DNA, but we now know from laboratory tests that we did not find the remains of Gosnoldís sister Elizabeth Tilney. Unfortunately, the sample we tested was a mismatch because it came from a woman who was too young to be his sister and was not related to him.

"Since we are not aware of any other relatives, buried or living, who could provide suitable DNA for testing," Kelso said, "we will continue to rely on archaeological and forensic evidence, which, in my opinion, strongly indicates that we have found Gosnold's grave."

Because of the historical importance of the project and the thoroughness of the research plan, in June this year, The Church of England granted permission for an international team of researchers led by Kelso and backed by the National Geographic Society to uncover and obtain samples for DNA testing from the burials of Gosnold's sister and his niece who was buried at the St. Peter and St. Mary's Church in Stowmarket. It was the first time the Church had authorized this type of research for scientific and historical reasons.

Mitochondrial DNA from the Shelley woman and the Jamestown captain was compared in an attempt to confirm that Gosnoldís grave had been discovered. Researchers were unable to locate Gosnoldís niece who was buried in the family vault below the church floor in Stowmarket. Her remains were not beneath the memorial ledger stone where they were expected to be, so no samples were taken.

Dr. Douglas Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, oversaw the testing and said microscopic analysis, including a calcium osteon analysis of the Shelley womanís bone sample and dental analysis, indicated that she was about age 50 when she died. "There is absolutely no way she could be Elizabeth, who was about age 74 at the time of her death." He stressed that her age could not be accurately determined until the laboratory tests were conducted.

British researchers had identified the likely location of Elizabeth's remains under the floor of the church, but the grave was not marked and archaeologists did not find any artifacts associated with her burial to positively confirm her identity.

"Thorough research showed that Elizabeth's grave was likely to be in the northern part of the chancel close to the Tilney chapel," said James Halsall, spokesman for the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich. "However, we knew other members of the Tilney family may have been buried in this area, and it seems we have confirmed this," he said.

The most likely family member to match the results of the analysis is Anne Framlingham. Born around 1544, Anne married Philip Tilney of Shelley Hall as a teenager in 1561. She helped entertain Queen Elizabeth I at the Hall in August of the same year and died in 1601 or 1602 in her mid-50's.

Without confirmation from DNA, the most compelling piece of evidence that archaeologists found Gosnold's grave was the discovery of a decorative captainís 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 also said coffin burials were traditionally used for people of higher status.

During a major on-going archaeological excavation at the James Fort site conducted in preparation for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007, archaeologists found the burial in 2002, 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.

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, just three months after the first permanent English colony in America was founded.

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. He 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. He also served as one of the six members of the original governing council and helped design James Fort.

A native of Suffolk, England, Gosnold is considered one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization. He also briefly 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, when it opens in the spring of 2006. The results of the Jamestown captain's 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 to learn more about how the early settlers lived and died, and characteristics of the early population. The Smithsonian Institution plans to open an exhibit on that research in the fall of 2007.

National Geographic Channelís signature series EXPLORER will feature the story of Jamestown and Gosnold on Sunday, November 20 at 8 p.m. ET/PT. EXPLORER examines evidence culled from human remains and artifacts to debunk some legends and bring to light extraordinary new details.

What is Mitochondrial DNA? Mitochondrial DNA is contained in the mitochondria of the cell and preserves well in bones. It is relatively stable and can be compared across several generations. Since mitochondrial DNA is only passed along the maternal line, to compare a sample from the bones of a deceased individual requires obtaining a sample from the mother or any of the siblings who share the same sequence of mitochondrial DNA as the mother of the deceased.

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