JAMESTOWN, Va. – It was tradition in 17th century Virginia to bury corpses with the heads pointed west and the feet to the east. This was done so that the eyes would face east, toward Jerusalem and the rapture.
Almost a year ago, archaeologists in Jamestown found a grave while studying the architecture and foundation of a church started in 1639. In this grave, the body was not just wrapped in a shroud, but buried in a hexagonal coffin. And the head was to the east, looking west. Those details hint at a person of some importance.
“We have uncovered other burials facing west instead of east at the 1608 church and in the 1617 church,” said Sean Romo, senior staff architect at Historic Jamestowne. “The 1608 one was Reverend Hunt, the first minister out here. In the 1617 burial we believe it is (Gov.) George Yeardley.”
In the intricate world of archaeology, which moves at a much slower pace than depicted in the “Indiana Jones” movies, the staff hasn’t even seen the remains yet.
The gravesite is identified by how layers of soil and clay are disturbed, a sign they had been dug up in a specific pattern and then shoveled back into place. The shape of the casket is determined by the shape of the grave, and the position of the head and feet is clear because the top of a hexagonal coffin is wider than the bottom.
Head archaeologist David Givens said among the first names that came to mind was Lord De La Warr, who had been tasked with governing the Virginia Colony from across the sea. He came to the colony in 1610, but he returned to England in 1611, leaving his deputy, Samuel Argall, in charge.
In 1618, with the colonists tiring of Argall’s rule, Lord De La Warr set sail again for Virginia but died three weeks before arrival. It was long assumed he was buried at sea, but more recent research led to the conclusion that he was brought to Jamestown for burial. But where?
The 1639 church, where the grave was discovered, had been built on the same ground where a previous church had been built in 1617. And Givens is intrigued by the fact that the grave is not in the churchyard but adjacent to the church.
“The acting governor, Samuel Argall, hated Lord De La Warr,” Givens said. “If the decision was made to bury him outside the church rather than inside, that may have been something Argall decided.”
Eventually geneology experts, such as geneticist Turi King at University of Leicester in England, will have a say in identifying the remains.
“We’re just dirt surgeons in a way,” Givens said.
Researchers will continue to study where the earliest settlers lived. Romo said, “We honor those from the past who lived and died at the beginning of our nation.”