Bill Kelso: Digging Up the Truth About Jamestown This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown. And that makes Bill Kelso — the man who excavated the site — one very happy archaeologist.
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Bill Kelso: Digging Up the Truth About Jamestown

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Bill Kelso: Digging Up the Truth About Jamestown

Bill Kelso: Digging Up the Truth About Jamestown

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America. A group of Englishmen, including John Smith, who later was befriended by Pocahontas, built a fort at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, 13 years before the Pilgrims crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower. And for the past 14 years, Bill Kelso has been working to uncover the secrets of Jamestown. NPR's Thomas Pierce has more.

THOMAS PIERCE: It was Spring when the English explorers found a channel so close to shore that they could tie their ships to the trees. The maze of tidal creeds in the Chesapeake were sun-warmed then, and the salt marsh grasses green. Compared to the cold they'd left behind in England, this was paradise.

But five months later, more than half of the original group of 104 men were dead, most from famine. This is often cited by as historians to show that the settlers were ill suited to the task of staying alive in a new world.

Mr. BILL KELSO (Archaeologist): The traditional story is that this is just a bunch of gentlemen who weren't used to working hard, they were put out in the wilderness, didn't know what to do, and all sat around and waited to die from hunger or something.

PIERCE: Archaeologist Bill Kelso has a different view. He's with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities, in charge of their Jamestown team.

(Soundbite of digging)

PIERCE: Two assistants are digging close to a well where they found all kinds of trashy treasures. Preserved beneath the water table for 400 years, metal breastplates and a loaded pistol and discarded animal bones. He says all of it is proof that the settlers weren't just sitting around.

Mr. KELSO: They were cutting down trees, digging holes, building forts, building buildings, digging ditches, burying people. They were exploring.

PIERCE: Tough men with skills and training, he says. Kelso himself is a husky man with a bright white mustache. Put him in some armor and you might mistake him for an explorer. And in a sense he is. He's every bit as tenacious and curious as the settlers who managed to erect a triangular fort here within 19 days after landing.

Mr. KELSO: Well, right over here I think is really a mathematical center of this triangle. If I can get it lined up. Yeah, right here. Arguably this is where the America as we know began. Right here at this spot. And that gets me every time. I get really emotional about it.

PIERCE: Kelso's team has rebuilt segments of the fort's walls, and they've begun constructing a building on this site using only mud and rough cut timber to better understand the challenges of the settlers' lives.

Several years ago, director Terrence Malick hired Kelso to advise him about how the set should look for "The New World," his film about Jamestown.

Mr. KELSO: If you want to know what it was like to be in Jamestown in the early 17th century, see this movie.

(Soundbite of movie, "The New World")

Mr. COLIN FARRELL (Actor): (As John Smith) Every man will stop what he's doing right now and start digging the well. Those of you that can't carry the dirt in buckets shall carry it with your own hands. He that will not work shall not eat. The labors of honest and industrious men should not be consumed to maintain the idleness of a few.

PIERCE: And the exhausting work wasn't their only problem, Kelso says.

Mr. KELSO: The Indians didn't want them here most of the time. And so there was nobody protecting you, covering your back. And then even the people you're with, you know, could be a problem.

PIERCE: In fact, one of the first skeletons they uncovered was a gunshot victim, most likely killed by a fellow settler's musket. The fall of 1607 was a stressful time for the colony. There was civil unrest; men were dying from famine, Indian arrows, disease, exertion and gunshot wounds.

In one section of the fort alone, Kelso's crew has marked some 30 overlapping gravesites with crosses. But Kelso is drawn to one grave in particular, a grave set apart from the rest. Two years ago Kelso found the remnants of a coffin filled with more than bones. Inside was a captain's staff, and he knew he had someone important.

Based on the skeleton's age and the date of burial, he thinks he's found none other than Bartholomew Gosnold.

Mr. KELSO: Gosnold was one of the designers of the fort. And here's an unmarked, unknown - sort of unknown soldier grave that, you know, can now be marked. His named doesn't appear anywhere. He died so early on. And yet Smith himself said that Gosnold was the most important person in the whole colonial effort at Jamestown. And yet we've never heard of him.

PIERCE: But not everyone's convinced the grave is Gosnold's. Last year, DNA tests were performed using a skeleton believed to have belonged to Gosnold's sister that came back negative. But Kelso is skeptical that they even had the sister's remains.

(Soundbite of squeaky gate)

PIERCE: Kelso doesn't live very far from the grave he still believes is Gosnold's. He's greeted at the gate by one of his basset hounds, Bart.

(Soundbite of dog)

PIERCE: Short for Bartholomew Gosnold, of course. When Kelso's not digging in the fort, you can find him with his dogs or with one of his bluegrass bands. Turns out he handles a banjo as well as a shovel.

Mr. KELSO: There is a song that's kind of archeological.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KELSO: "The Old Home Place."

(Soundbite of music)

PIERCE: Jamestown is more than just an old home place for long-since dead men like John Smith and Bartholomew Gosnold. This is Kelso's home too. And when the 400th anniversary celebrations begin in a few months, he'll be ready for his guests, ready to show them the artifacts he spent a lifetime collecting.

(Soundbite of song, "The Old Home Place")

Mr. KELSO: (Singing) It's been 10 long years since I left my home in a hollow where I was born. Well, cool fall nights make the wood smoke rise and a foxhunter blows his horn...

PIERCE: Thomas Pierce, NPR News.

(Soundbite of a song, "Old Home Place")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I fell in love with a girl from the town I thought that she would be true. I ran away to Charlottesville and worked in a sawmill or two. What have we done to the old home place? Why did they tear it down? And why...

SIMON: Photos of the excavation and reconstruction of Jamestown Fort are at our Website,

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