Wednesday, September 27, 2017



By William M. Kelso

University of Virginia Press, $34.95, 251 pages

“What’s past is practice,” a young woman’s tattoo read at a Bethesda market last weekend — a send-up of the National Archives’ motto. William M. Kelso might argue as much if he ventured a single droll thought within the perfect solemnity of “Jamestown, the Truth Revealed.”

Jamestown, Virginia was where settlers landed in 1607, survived “starving time” two years later, fought Indians (also each other) and planted the first successful colony in English North America. Our Bethesda damsel’s tattoo may seem accurate when one considers the modern hardships those worthies faced: natural disasters, gun violence, intractable immigration issues. (Well, the immigrants were the white guys.) So they built a wall.

Surrounding their first triangular fort, the wall enclosed 1.1 acres — about the area of football fields today. They cut more than 600 logs from trees and set them side-by-side in a hand-dug trench; it ran 1,030 feet overall. Contractors in 2004 took three weeks to build a similar wall for a movie set using power tools. Mr. Kelso estimates the Jamestowners did it in 19 days with broad axes, pit saws and shovels. But their lives depended on it.

Having spent 20 years as the lead archaeologist here, Mr. Kelso interprets the settlers’ mettle and success through the objects he unearthed. “These uncovered artifacts illustrate the process by which Englishmen and -women began to be transformed into Americans,” the “founding grandfathers,” he calls them.

He burdens his analysis with cliche and hyperbole starting on Page 1: “The American dream was born on the banks of the James River. Lured by the promise of a better life, in 1607 a band of adventurers established the first enduring English settlement in the New World.”

That the “dream” began here is a stretch; that they imagined a “better life” is an innocuous lie. As he states (and repeats), “Jamestown came into being for one overarching reason: to make money for the Virginia Company investors [by] generating whatever Virginia had to offer for export.”

This was venture capitalism four centuries early. London financiers sent their minions to find gold, silver and whatever else they could monetize. First, actually, came lumber, then tobacco and London got hooked on the weed, which made Virginia rich.

The adventurers failed in two nebulous goals: to find a northwest passage to India and to convert the people they called Indians to the true faith (Anglican flavor). After years of uneasy relations, the folk they sought to save attacked their scattered plantations, killing 350 settlers one day in 1622. Thus the proprietary venture was abandoned and became a royal colony.

Mr. Kelso argues that Jamestowners got scant respect before; previous historians saw them as a mob of dandies who came unprepared and unwilling to do what needed to be done. He sets the record straight on that account, describing the Augean work they undertook, the tools they made, the buildings they erected, the occupations they plied (e.g., metallurgy, glassmaking, medicine), the wells they dug, the crops they raised.

His central point is to show they won a beachhead and planted the leaf that nurtured America’s wealthiest colony, which then cradled the posse who sparked the revolt that led to the birth of our unique republic. He chronicles his own efforts as the alpha archaeologist on-site and explicates — through archaeology — both the settlers’ fearsome challenges and their hard-won successes.

Mr. Kelso’s signal achievement was finding the settlers’ first fortification, James Fort, which most scholars, scientists and preservationists believed had been washed away by erosion. Not so, as he recounts in the first half of this book, which he acknowledges is a reprise of his decade-old “Jamestown, Buried Truth.”

The rest of this work updates the efforts of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project, and its astonishing finds: 2 million objects from needles to matchlocks, halberds and iron armor unsuited for combat in the Tidewater. (Waste not want not: a breastplate got recycled as a basin.)

He particularizes the horrors of “starving time,” which left the bones of vipers, turtles, rats and dogs in middens as four-fifths of the 300 settlers starved. Worse, in 2012 Mr. Kelso’s team uncovered the skeleton of a 14-year-old English girl which showed signs that she had been butchered for food (posthumously, it is hoped). Contemporary accounts suggested that cannibalism happened; Mr. Kelso confirms it.

His treatise references the many disciplines that modern archaeology involves: computer manipulation, dendrochronology, forensic sculpting, X-ray analysis, chemical and DNA assays, soil and water ecology, history in several subsets, “and above all the tireless practice of deductive reasoning.” In return, archaeology here proffers data for sister sciences, showing for instance that water levels rose two feet over four centuries.

Archaeology, Mr. Kelso’s forte, is slow and exegesis ponderous. But bookmaking need not suffer. The publishers, deciding to splurge on illustrations, chose them poorly, displayed them haphazardly, captioned them crudely. One patroness whom Mr. Kelso thanks lavishly is the creator of a fictional coroner, and the novelist blurbs this book with an apt if unfortunate analogy:

“The unearthing of Jamestown is truly the autopsy of America, an amazing dissection.” Yes, this reads like a post-mortem, and the dust jacket spells Patricia Cornwell’s name wrong.

• Philip Kopper, publisher of Posterity Press, Inc., is the author of “Colonial Williamsburg” (Harry N. Abrams).

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