In “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Dr. Indiana Jones famously said, “archeology is the search for fact, not truth.” Fact is something that cannot be changed while truth depends on a person’s perspectives and experience. At Historic Jamestowne we are fact finders unearthing a story from 400 years ago, when the Virginia Colony was establishing the foundation for today’s America.
The Virginia Colony, specifically Jamestown, Virginia, has long been the place historians identify as America’s birthplace. Jamestown was settled in 1607 and for hundreds of years has remained an important resource as archaeologists continue to explore and increase our understanding of the incredible events that have occurred throughout that area. With every dig on the island comes a new discovery, and a new story from a time long ago.
Through archaeological digs in Jamestown (a joint project between Colonial National Historic Park and Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation), we have uncovered many incredible facts about our past such as John Martin’s 17th-century Ottoman Empire pipe, identifying him as likely the first Persian American (arriving in 1618); and the discovery of numerous foundations built on top of the original Memorial Church on the island, where the first Representative Legislative Assembly in the New World convened in 1619.
However, one of the most interesting excavations on Jamestown Island is the exploration of Capt. William Pierce’s home site. Capt. Pierce was a prominent planter and merchant in Jamestown, and records from the 1625 census indicate that one of the first enslaved Africans to arrive in Virginia in 1619, Angela, was listed as living with his family. Uncovering Angela’s story is an integral part to learning more about a piece of our history that has remained untold — what happened when Africans first arrived in English North America and what was their existence like?
This is a key pillar in Virginia’s 2019 Commemoration, American Evolution, which marks the 400th anniversary of a series of pivotal historical events that occurred in 1619 that continue to influence American democracy, diversity and opportunity. One of the main focal points is the August 1619 arrival of more than 20 enslaved Africans to Virginia on the ships the White Lion and the Treasurer.
By excavating parts of Capt. Pierce’s original property, our goal is to be able to define the physical and cultural landscape in which Angela lived and worked. She is one of the first enslaved Africans in English America that historians and archaeologists can identify with a name, location and backstory.
We now know that Angela was part of the Pierce household for at least five years, and through continued excavation we will unearth more facts around her life to add to the emerging narrative of diversity at Jamestown. The archaeology at the Angela site allows us not only to explore the context of African enslavement in English North America, but it allows the public to engage in a discussion of how diverse our nation’s beginnings really were, and how it evolved over the past four centuries.
Archaeology and the facts it uncovers isn’t just for history lovers; it is a story that reveals who we are and how we arrived as a society in today’s America. American Evolution embraces this and is making 400 years of Virginia and U.S. history easy for all to experience.
The Commemoration recently launched the Virginia History Trails mobile application, which provides residents and visitors easy access to Virginia history. The app includes 20 themed trails and 400 detailed site descriptions that explain what happened, who was involved and why each site is important to Virginia and American history. Sites like Historic Jamestown are prominently featured, making travel, exploration and education easier than ever before.
Not only is the Virginia History Trails app now available for travelers, but the excavation sites at Historic Jamestowne have reopened to the public after a winter hiatus. We encourage visitors to come find their inner Indiana Jones by exploring, asking questions and engaging in dialogue around the unique facts and stories that have been waiting to be unearthed for 400 years.
• Kym Hall is superintendent of Colonial National Historical Park. David Givens is senior staff archaeologist at the Jamestown Rediscovery.
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