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Jamestown Box

A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina was found inside the grave of an early American colonist at Jamestown after 400 years buried in the Virginia dirt, but it was sealed shut. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished. The tiny, hexagonal box, etched with the letter “M,” contained seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, and it probably was an object of veneration, cherished as disaster closed in on the colony.

On a chilly November day in 2013, archaeologist Jamie May reached into the dirt of grave “C,” in what had been the chancel of the church, built inside the walls of James Fort in 1608. With the thumb and forefinger of her left hand she gripped the little box, and with the other hand gently worked it free with a small wooden tool. As she lifted it out, Director of Archaeology William M. Kelso asked, “Does it feel hollow?”

“Yeah,” she said. “And it feels like there’s something in it.”

The finding is a historical bombshell, unearthed in a grave on the site of what was once the first church built at Jamestown. Which means researchers may have just discovered proof of an underground community of Catholics—including Archer and perhaps the person who buried him with the relic—who pretended to be Protestants.
Archaeologists found a mysterious box containing seven bone fragments and a small lead vial, along with several important graves in Jamestown, Va., from the 1608 Jamestown Church chancel site

Researchers believe the box was buried with Archer after his death between 1608 and 1616—which would mean the person who buried him would have known the significance of the artifact.

Grave “A” contained the skeleton of the Rev. Robert Hunt, who was about 39 and was the first Anglican minister in the country, experts concluded from records and studies of the remains.

Grave “B” held the skeleton of Sir Ferdinando Wainman, who was about 34, “an honest and valiant gentleman,” wrote a friend. He died in 1610 and was buried in a fancy wooden coffin.

Grave “C” contained the remains of Archer, who was about 34. He stood only 5-foot-5 and was among the leading men who arrived in 1607. He was a lawyer and scribe, and his hands had been wounded in a skirmish with Indians. Archer was buried in a coffin of white oak, and the silver box was found on top, near his lower left leg.

Grave “D” bore the remains of Capt. William West, who was about 24 and had been killed fighting Indians in 1610 near where Richmond is today.

Archaeologists and historians announced their discovery at the Smithsonian on Tuesday, along with the identities of three other key Jamestown leaders whose remains were buried nearby.

All four men were “involved in all of the major decisions that took place during the first four years of the colony's history,” Horn said in a video about the discovery.

Studies and scans showed that the box was made of non-English silver, and may originated in continental Europe many decades before it reached Jamestown.


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