Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Jamestown: The Buried Truth • William M. Kelso • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006 • xiv, 238 pp. • $29.95
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Reviewed by Philip Levy, associate professor of history at the University of South Florida. He is the author of Fellow Travelers: Indians and Europeans Contesting the Early American Trail (2007).
In Jamestown: The Buried Truth, William Kelso offers his readers an intimate guided tour of the James Fort archaeological site and some of the people and objects associated with it. The book is filled with wonderful color illustrations and numerous fine excavation and artifact photographs. All in all, Kelso and the University of Virginia Press have created an informative and visually impressive volume. Arriving in the fort's quadricentennial year, the book is aimed at a wide audience, which it will no doubt reach.
Kelso is proud of his site and the work that went into it, and the book reflects that pride. Writing in the tradition of Ivor Noël Hume, Kelso presents the search for the site, the effort to reveal its secrets, and the findings in a highly personal way. Like Noël Hume, Kelso adopts a narrative strategy that portrays archaeologists as historical problem solvers and seeks to share the process and logic behind their detective work. Throughout the book, Kelso presents a particular historical or archaeological problem, such as the actual location of the fort, the presence of a seemingly anomalous object, a discrepancy between textual description and archaeological remains, or the identity of a long-dead settler, and then walks the reader through the many solutions.
For example, at the outset of the book we learn how widespread was the belief that James Fort's remains had been washed into the James River long ago. But Kelso shows how it was only spadework based on a blend of "fact, artifact, theory, and hope" that in time showed that most of the fort's remains and associated features were still high and dry and ready for study (p. 54). Likewise, the buried skeletal remains of one early settler bearing marks suggesting a violent death become the center of the well-known "Who Shot JR" mystery (JR in this case is a pun referring to "Jamestown Rediscovery"). The route to answering the question, and those related to other excavated burials, takes Kelso, and his readers, through the techniques employed by those wishing to "identify a modern crime victim" including ballistics, facial reconstruction, and even a sort of lineup of possible victims and murder suspects (p. 136). Kelso uses the opportunity presented by this mystery to touch on issues of James Fort's budding class structure, political intrigue, and the vicissitudes of firing a matchlock musket.
Kelso wants to make as real to us as possible the people of the place and the process of studying them. He is at pains throughout to call our attention to human details like the last English steps the settlers may have trodden at the dock, the most intimate of artifacts, or the final disposition of a dead settler. Kelso also reaches for human connections, in part through his personalized narrative. He brings the reader into the process of understanding the site to better expose the workings and logic of archaeology and also to explain his own thought processes. The book is peppered with leading rhetorical questions creating a sort of call-and-response textual tension while also being the means of forwarding more than a few hypotheses. In fact, much of the book's argumentation comes in this form, as opposed to outright statement. This may be a result of the challenges implicit in bringing an archaeological site to life at the level of personal detail Kelso wishes to present. Nevertheless, Kelso is a partisan for his method and asserts that archaeology provides "impartial records" of life in the fort (p. 81). His style seeks to get the reader as close as possible to those records and let them have their effect.
Although much of the book is devoted to the fort's walls, buildings, and the physical remains of its residents, its most significant scholarly contribution may rest in the way Kelso employs the site's vast artifact collection to piece together the economic activities of the fort's beleaguered settlers. From metallurgy to distilling and more, Kelso documents the degree of the Jamestown settlers' and their backers' "steadfast commitment to making a success of their Virginia enterprise" despite numerous obstacles (p. 106). The range and quality of these activities on the site as shown through their artifactual remains has never been seen in richer detail, thus providing us with a fuller than previously available view of how English Virginians got by before tobacco redefined the colony. Also, as our larger understanding of Atlantic interactions increases, Jamestown has given us a wonderful view of an early English colonial trade fort to compare with other similar Northern European colonial activities in America and other continents the world over.
In a year full of Jamestown reading, few offerings give us such a personal and intimate glimpse of James Fort and its inhabitants as well as the hard work, considered thought and reasoning, and technologies that went into the site's rediscovery.