The archaeologists carefully lifted and moved the 1,200-pound gravestone, which was four centuries old. They planned to restore this priceless artifact that dated back to the earliest English settlers in America, who’d arrived in Jamestown in 1607. And they hoped to find out who exactly had been buried beneath the stone, an unsolved mystery that had perplexed historians for decades.
If you paid attention in history class, you’ll know that Jamestown in Virginia was the first permanent English settlement in North America. The Virginia Company of London founded the colony in 1607, naming it James Fort. Archaeologist William Kelso, an expert on Jamestown, told Slate that the settlement “is where the British Empire began.”
These first colonists from England set up their new home on the banks of Powhatan River, which was the land of the Paspahegh tribe. Relations between the newcomers and the original inhabitants were cordial at first, but this wasn’t to last. Within a few years, in fact, the Paspahegh had been completely wiped out.
Many of the English settlers fared little better. The winter of 1609 to 1610 came to be known as the “Starving Time.” There were some 500 settlers at the start of the season, but by the following spring only 60 had survived, a devastating mortality rate of nearly 90 percent. Moreover, evidence indicates that this terrible famine led some of the desperate settlers to indulge in cannibalism.
The site was temporarily abandoned after that miserable winter, but was soon re-occupied. And Jamestown eventually began to thrive, becoming the capital of Virginia from 1616 to 1699. Consequently, it’s one of the principal historical sites in the U.S., and archaeologists and researchers have spent many years delving into its secrets.
One area that has been the subject of much investigation is the location of Jamestown’s earliest churches. Today, a church built in 1907 stands on the site, but it sits on the foundations of a much older structure. Beneath the 20th-century building is the third church built in Jamestown, which was constructed in 1617.
Now archaeologists had the task of moving a gravestone set into the floor of the church, one that had been there for four centuries. The black stone is called the Knight’s Tomb and measures some three feet by six. Those dimensions, combined with its 1,200-pound weight, meant that moving the artifact was going to be no easy task.
The project started in early 2017 and, recognizing the magnitude of the work ahead of the team, Michael Lavin, a Preservation Virginia archaeologist, told the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, “This is kind of out of the realm of what we in the conservation department are doing. It is an artifact, but it is more of a monument. One of the most important things for us is knowing our limitations.”
With that in mind, Preservation Virginia had brought in Jonathan Appell from a company called Atlas Preservation based in Connecticut. This firm had participated in other projects involving monumental stones and so had the necessary expertise for the Jamestown assignment.
Appell and his team soon made a detailed plan for the conservation of the tombstone. The first thing that they’d have to do was to move the stone, so that they’d be able to work on it. At some point in its past, the artifact had been broken into a number of pieces, so shifting it would be a delicate task.
The stone was set in cement, which had to be cut away so that the tombstone could be moved. Then Appell carefully chiseled off the mortar that was set beneath the artifact. Next, the separate pieces of the tombstone could be lifted away, with the largest piece necessitating the use of a specially constructed rig.
Mary Anna Hartley, a Preservation Virginia field supervisor, told the Williamsburg Yorktown Daily, “It took a lot of muscling and time and wedging and prying to slowly move it up the ramp. Each of the pieces was light enough for one or two people to lift it onto the cart, except that last part took about five.”
Watched by 100 specially invited onlookers, the process of moving the stone worked out just as planned. “It was a little tense. I was definitely sweating,” Appell admitted. “It was a pretty intense short time period. It was a complete success. I didn’t see any one moment where it was really scary.”
The Knight’s Tombstone had last been conserved in the early 20th, century and much of the work that would now be done actually involved undoing that earlier restoration. “Their techniques then leave a lot to be desired now,” Appell explained. “They used a lot of really hard cement, which is really hard to remove … It’s very hard to reverse.”
Once all the old cement is removed, the stone will then be put back together using a specially mixed mortar with a custom pigmentation. “We’re always trying to do things that are possible to redo later,” Appell pointed out. “If someone comes back to this and there are issues in another hundred years we don’t want to make it so that it’s impossible to do something to this [tombstone] again … It’s going to be in theory reversible, which is an important tenet of historic preservation.”
Now that the work on the stone – the only one of its kind to survive in America – was well under way, the pressing question was: who had been commemorated by this monument? The shape of a knight is inscribed in the stone. Preservation Virginia’s Hayden Bassett said, “That kind of limits the pool of individuals in early Virginia who could be buried [there] – it’s limited to which knights died in Virginia in the first half of the 17th century.”
Preservation Virginia’s research led them to narrow the field of plausible candidates down to just two individuals. And both of them had been colonial governors. The first was the Baron De La Warr, Thomas West. The other was Sir George Yeardley. West gave the “De La Warr” part of his name to the state of Delaware. He died at sea in 1618 while he was returning to Virginia from England.
But the researchers concluded that the body buried under the Knight’s Tombstone was more likely to be that of Sir George Yeardley. Bassett explained their thinking. “When you’re studying mortuary practices, when you’re studying monuments, you never want to go to the records of the person who died,” he said. “You want to go to the records of their offspring, of their family members who are still living. They’re the people who are largely going to be dealing with the logistics of getting a massive stone over here.”
And a journal written by one Adam Thorowgood II, a step-grandson of Yeardley, does seem to provide some corroborating evidence. Bassett said, “What they mention is that they would like to have a black marble tomb with the crest of Sir George Yeardley and the same inscription as upon the broken tomb. We believe that might reference this stone.”
Yeardley served as deputy governor of Virginia in 1616 and 1617. Back in England in 1618, Yeardley wed the charmingly named Temperance Flowerdew, and shortly afterwards he was appointed governor of Virginia. He died at Jamestown in 1627 and, it’s now believed, was buried under the Knight’s Tombstone.