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Jamestown, Va., the first successful English colony in North America, was a difficult place, to say the least. Most of the colonists who arrived in 1607 died shortly thereafter from famine, disease or battles with Native Americans. Now archaeologists have identified the remains of some of the colony's most notable casualties. NPR's Christopher Joyce visited the site and brings us this story on the fate of the Jamestown elite.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: At Jamestown, the emerald green grass rolls down to the James River, and a steady breeze keeps the mosquitoes at bay. Preservation Virginia runs this historical site, and Bill Kelso is the top archaeologist there. Five years ago, he hit a jackpot.
BILL KELSO: In 2010 we found a series of gigantic postholes.
JOYCE: The posts in those holes had been 4 feet square. They had supported a building - the colony's first church, built in 1608. The church was gone. However...
KELSO: We could see where there were four burials in the very east end of this rectangular pattern.
JOYCE: It had been an Anglican church. The east end would have been the holiest spot, the chancel.
KELSO: The most holy part, you know, that's where you'd have the communion table and the altar and those kinds of things at the end.
JOYCE: To be buried in the chancel, you had to be special.
KELSO: Chancel is reserved for the really high status people. So we decided we were going to excavate these.
JOYCE: With help from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, they exhumed the remains. They were four men. The bones were in bad shape and no sign of who they were nor what they died from. But an historical account of Jamestown by colonist George Percy on a plaque near the church site gives some hints.
KELSO: This is George Percy in 1607. He reports that our men were destroyed with cruel diseases and swellings, burning fevers and by wars. And some departed suddenly, but for the most part, they died of near famine.
JOYCE: England's Virginia Company had sent the men to America to find wealth. Most died within three years. Life was hell - the church, their spiritual refuge and, according to James Horn, the president of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, part of their reason for being there.
JAMES HORN: It's not just about the commercial. It's about establishing English society in America. And English society without the Church of England at this time is unthinkable.
JOYCE: So who would merit burial in the chancel? The graves did offer some clues. In one, they found a silk sash woven with silver sequins. In another, they found part of a leading staff, a wooden staff a military officer would hold. And along with it, the most intriguing object.
MERRY OUTLAW: We keep it locked up.
JOYCE: Merry Outlaw is curator of Jamestown's artifacts. She retrieves a shiny silver box from a cabinet, two inches long, an inch wide. It had been laid on the coffin in one of the graves. Outlaw has seen thousands of artifacts from Jamestown, but this one is top of the heap.
OUTLAW: It's unique, nothing else like it.
JOYCE: It was too fragile to open, so the team did a CT scan of it. Inside, a tiny lead capsule and some bone fragments.
KELSO: Lead vessel - it would hold holy water, oil or blood. And the bone would be that of a saint. Put together, this is a very holy object.
JOYCE: And there is a letter M scratched into it.
KELSO: Yes. That stands for mystery. We don't know what - still an enigma.
JOYCE: But this was quite clearly a reliquary, a containment of holy relics and normally a Catholic object. That was puzzling. The colonists were Church of England. They considered Catholics their spiritual enemies. So these were the clues in the dirt. Back at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley started work on the bones. One clue - lead in the bones - it was high. In those days, people sometimes ate from pewter or glazed bowls and cups which contained lead.
DOUGLAS OWSLEY: You're going to get him some exposure. But if you're from a high status family, you're going to get more.
JOYCE: Because metal ware was more expensive. The bones also showed high levels of nitrogen, suggesting these men had grown up eating more meat than most. And their long bones did not bear the marks of heavy muscle attachments.
OWSLEY: These are good size men, but they are not muscled up strongly. It's characterizing their background and lifestyle. It's a little clue, but we look at all these lines of evidence and tie it together.
JOYCE: By combining the physical evidence with historical documents, the team finally identified these buried men. They were the colony's elite. Reverend Robert Hunt, the first pastor of the colony. He arrived in 1607. He soon lost all his possessions in a fire. The next year, he died at age 39. Captain William West - he was a gentleman and a relative of the colony's first governor. He died in 1610 at age 24 fighting Indians. The silver sash was in his coffin. Sir Ferdinando Wainman, a soldier, horseman and an English knight - he'd been in charge of ordinance and horses. He died in 1610 at age 34. And finally, Captain Gabriel Archer - here was the answer to the puzzle of the reliquary. His family, in fact, was Catholic and had been persecuted for that in England. He was probably the owner. He died in 1609 at age 34, and the reliquary went into the earth with him. Owsley says the ages are approximate and identifications are 85 percent sure. And certainly, questions remain. For example, why was a Catholic there?
OWSLEY: We surely don't have all the answers, and we certainly want this to open the discussion and lead to more research.
JOYCE: Research on everything from tooth decay to bone shape to bone chemistry that will illuminate the lives of the first English settlers in America from what they left behind. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
BLOCK: And you can take a 3D virtual tour of the archaeological site at NPR.org.
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