When I was a girl, Jamestown was just a story, and a somewhat confusing, problematic one at that. It was supposed to be really important, but just how did it fit into the Grand Patriotic Narrative of American History? Was it the first European settlement in America? No. The first permanent European settlement? No. A settlement based on lofty principles such as liberty or freedom of religion? Uh, no. Well planned and executed by highly competent individuals? Hardly. What it did have was a (supposedly) sympathetic “Indian princess,” cannibalism, and let’s not forget the genesis of the tobacco industry, still claiming lives 400 years later.
But never fear! These days, rich, true stories are being unearthed and told at Jamestown, and they can add much more to our knowledge of history and of the U.S. than those old, tired ones ever could.
There are two Jamestowns. Jamestown Settlement, run by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, offers a visitor center with café, gift shops and a museum, along with three living history areas: reconstructions of an Indian village, the Jamestown fort, and the three ships that carried the first English colonists, the Godspeed, the Discovery, and the Susan Constant. Historic Jamestowne, a National Park Service/APVA Preservation Virginia site, offers a visitor center, film, the site itself (currently being excavated) and the new Archaearium, a museum that presents the area’s archaeology. Together the two Jamestowns tell a story of that settlement—and of the U.S.—that began long before 1607 and continues as I type: a story that embraces events in the Americas, Europe and Africa, and in the sea passages between.
The new, 15-minute introductory film at Jamestown Settlement is impressive. Beautifully filmed with convincing actors, it provides a feel for the natural milieu, introduces the cultures that eventually came together at Jamestown, and adds depth to the overall experience. Though the brutality pictured was--how shall I put it?—tastefully muted, it was a bit much for my sensitive six-year old. My sheltered nine-year old had no problem with it.
The living history areas appeal, above all, to the senses. For modern, urban hands and noses, handling the deerskins, furs, pottery, baskets, fishing nets, charcoal, armor, and heavy water buckets is instructive in itself. My children loved trying on armor, scraping out and climbing into the dug-out canoes and testing straw-mattressed sailors’ bunks. I enjoyed knotting the fishing nets. I wish there had been more costumed interpreters, but the ones there were had plenty of interesting information and answers to all the key questions: How did they prepare their food? Where did they sleep? And of course (since there were young children in my party), where did they go to the bathroom?
The museum exhibit at Jamestown Settlement is extensive, informed not only by history and archaeology, but also by the natural sciences, anthropology, ethnology, geography, architecture, technology, etc. It includes interactive videos and films and a multitude of artifacts that help to depict 17th-century life in Virginia, England, and Africa (primarily Angola, where the first slaves sent to Jamestown apparently originated). The museum professional in my party (a.k.a. my husband) was favorably impressed by the exhibition craft and by the wealth of information available and accessible to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.
The real thrill of the experience, though, for me, was to get out to the actual site of the original fort on the banks of the James River. It was, until recently, thought to have been lost to the river. Thanks to rethinking by archaeologist Bill Kelso, it has been found and excavations are ongoing. Hundreds of thousands of objects as well as bodily remains have already been found. Structures that have been excavated to date include (the postholes of) a building, probably of wattle-and-daub construction (which is being reconstructed on site) and a well that contained many well-preserved objects from the early years of the settlement.
Also quite fascinating is the most recently added element: the Archaearium. This wonderful museum presents not only the artifacts and remains, but also archaeology itself. Visitors are treated to a crash course on how specialists attempt to analyze these finds, using knowledge and methods from dozens of disciplines—from art history to osteology, numismatics to geology, together, of course with modern techniques such as carbon 14 testing and DNA analysis. Then, in selected cases, the pieces are put together, and the viewer can see how knowledge grows, particular scenarios may be deduced, and conclusions can be tested and considered.
At the Archaearium it becomes apparent that archaeology, because it is perhaps the only unbiased witness to past events, can and should play a large part in the writing and rewriting of history. This is perhaps the biggest inspiration of all: a call to wake up, look for the evidence, dig in and, actually or even just metaphorically, get your hands dirty!
A practical note:
During our mid-week, spring-break visit the Jamestown Settlement gift shop was completely maxed out; the claustrophobic effect was even worse than in the passenger hold of the reconstructed Susan Constant. The café was doable for an early lunch, but I don’t see how it will be able to handle peak summer crowds. In other words, BYO food!