What’s Written in Bone Could Change Our View of the Past

King Richard III and James Fort skeletons reveal our history.

Two skeletons, an ocean apart and more than 500 and 400 years old, respectively, have given scientists and the rest of us a lot to wonder about. 

University of Leicester has announced that the remains found under a parking lot in town are those of England’s King Richard III who died in 1485 fighting Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth. He was the last English monarch killed in battle. 

This remarkable verdict came after rigorous scientific investigations including radiocarbon dating, DNA and bone analyses. It crisscrossed many fields including archeology, anthropology, genetics, genealogy, forensic pathology and engineering, and ancient history. Just the story of where to dig—in the church choir stall area at the site of the long-gone Greyfriars priory in Leicester—is fascinating. 

Hearing this reminded me of our visit to Jamestown, VA.

In 2003 archaeologists with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities announced they’d discovered the remains of a high-ranking male colonist who was buried ceremoniously in a coffin just outside the 1607 James Fort site at Historic Jamestowne. Based on historical, archaeological and forensic evidence, Dr. William Kelso, director of archeology at Historic Jamestowne, is confident the remains are Captain Bartholomew Gosnold.

Never heard of him? Gosnold was the principal promoter and vice admiral leader of the Jamestown Colony. As captain of the Godspeed, one of the three ships in the Jamestowne fleet, Gosnold was a privateer who recruited the settlement’s famous Captain John Smith and obtained the charter from King James for the Virginia Company to settle Virginia. Gosnold named Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.

“If this is Gosnold, then we’ve found the ‘lost to history’ burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonization, hence a founding father of modern America, and one of that elite group of daring English mariners of the Age of Exploration,” says Kelso in a March 21, 2006 press release.

Visitors to James Fort today may be lucky enough to meet Danny Schmidt, senior archeologist who has been there for most of the excavation and is still digging. Schmidt tells that in 2003 the dig first pin-pointed the true shape and size of the first fort in the first permanent English settlement in America. Within this colonial bulls-eye, the team was able to concentrate its efforts.

Schmidt gives tours of the current dig, tells what amazing artifacts he’s unearthed, and lets visitors know that they can find Gosnold’s skeleton and the finial from the ceremonial staff found in his grave at the “Written in Bone” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. We did and were thrilled to see a wall-size photo of Schmidt inside a pit as part of the Smithsonian exhibit. The whole experience of watching Jamestown being excavated and following Gosnold and Schmidt to D.C. was a highlight of our visit.

For more information about the Smithsonian’s exhibit, “Written in Bone, Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake,” visit: http://anthropology.si.edu/writteninbone/index.html

For more news about the Jamestown Rediscovery project: http://www.historicjamestowne.org/news/

Watch the Feb. 4, 2013 University of Leicester press conference: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/media-centre/richard-iii

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