This time it worked
May 20, 2008
|The English finally make it - Tuesday, May 20
We woke to light sprinkles that turned into a decent rain, making it not a good day to visit Williamsburg. But we’ve come to see Jamestown and Yorktown too, so today we opted for Jamestown.
From what I remember it’s only a driving tour. There’s nothing to see except some painted signs telling what life was like in the colony, and you can read those without getting out of your car. The perfect activity for a rainy day - at least that’s how I remember it. But in 24 years things change - and we found a very different Jamestown from the one I visited 1n 1984!
To get from Newport News to any of these three attractions, you take Jefferson Ave. (the street our park is on) north toward the town of Williamsburg. Then to go to either Jamestown or Yorktown you turn off Jefferson onto an uncluttered thoroughfare called the Colonial Parkway - east if you’re going to Yorktown, and west if you’re going to Jamestown. I say ‘uncluttered’ because it’s as pristine as they could make it. You see nothing but woods, and there isn’t even a line down the center.
We turned west and ten miles later we emerged from the woods into the James River Valley. Jamestown is on an island, separated from the mainland by a body of water called Powhatan Creek. On the way to the island there are several turnouts with interpretive signs, one of them a map showing the island in relation to the mainland.
In true European fashion, the colonists didn’t give a damn what the people who lived here called the river, they immediately renamed it in honor of their king. And knowing the English they probably expected the natives to start calling it the ‘James River’ too! Is it any wonder Powhatan’s people rose up to massacre them in 1622, and again 1644? What self respecting Aboriginals wouldn’t?
History books used to portray Indians as the evil doers, massacring innocent, well meaning settlers who only wanted to make a ’better life’ for their families. They glossed over the arrogance and evil whites brought with them in such abundance from Europe.
Today’s Visitor Centers do a little better, admitting that mistakes were made and that slavery was wrong, but there is still an element of apology in their treatment, and a tendency to gush poetically over every accomplishment of the Europeans, while downplaying the evil they did, both to the indigenous peoples they found here, and to the people of color they kidnapped and brought here to do their work.
We arrived at the bridge over Powhatan Creek and crossed it onto the island. Imagine my surprise to learn that where there was only a driving loop 24 years ago there are now two centers of activity, one a development of the historic site where the colony was actually situated, and the other a place called Jamestown Settlement where they have recreated as much of the atmosphere of the colony as possible through replication and reenactments.
We opted for the historic site first. It still has the driving loop I remember, but now there is a Visitor Center, the remains of a colonial glass making venture, and a number of other wonders unheard of two decades ago.
Our first stop took us to the glasshouse, an excavated ruins of the kilns and workshop where colonists experimented with learning to make glass for export to England, where it was very much in demand. The first experiment was not a success. Raw materials were harder to find than they expected, and only one experimental batch was made before the attempt was terminated.
A few years later another attempt was made. Experienced glass makers were imported from Italy, but the new arrivals got sick and did not prosper. When a ‘tempest’ blew down the workshop no attempt was made to rebuild it, and glassmaking ended here as a commercial venture. In addition to the ruins, today there is a demonstration glassworks that uses some traditional, and some more modern techniques. A young man was busy working the glass, they also have a gift shop where pieces made here are for sale.
Next stop was the Visitor Center. All this is new since I was here last, and it’s a great addition. It starts with a video giving a brief history of Jamestown. From there we spent over an hour looking at the wonderful exhibits and recently discovered artifacts. These were all dug up since 1994 and they have changed a lot of what was believed about Jamestown 20 years ago.
One exhibit I liked was a timeline that puts Jamestown in historical context with all the other attempts at colonization. We’ve seen several colonial sites now that all claimed to be ‘the first’, and while each one was first in it’s own right, it’s been confusing to understand how they all relate to each other.
Saint Augustine (1560’s) was the first European colony but it was Spanish. The two attempts to colonize Roanoke Island (1580’s) were the first English colonies, but one failed and the other vanished. Leaving it to Jamestown (1607) to become the first permanent English colony established on this continent.
Two decades ago historians believed the site of the fort at Jamestown was lost and out in the river somewhere. Not until rediscovery efforts began in 1994 was it discovered that the fort site is still very much on dry land, and that it and many other building sites are still there and contain many valuable artifacts. Over 1,000 artifacts have been found just since I was last here, and archaeologists expect to find many more in the future. Some of these are displayed beautifully in the Visitor Center, but many more are on exhibit in a building they call the Archaearium, which is the most unique and exquisitely presented piece of history I have ever seen.
It is a building constructed over the site of one of the main buildings excavated at the historic site. It serves several purposes. It protects the excavated foundation from being disturbed or destroyed, it has glass panels in the floor so visitors can view the four hundred year old foundation, and it provides a venue to exhibit the artifacts found at the site, and present them in exhibits that are as breathtakingly artistic, as they are historically significant.
One of the Archaearium’s most fascinating exhibits is titled Death Informs the Living. It is a room devoted to the display of a woman’s skull and the entire skeletons of two men. The skeletons are displayed exactly as they were found, one with a musket ball still embedded in the bone of his leg, and the other with the staff of leadership found in his casket. The skeletal remains are accompanied by forensic recreations of the person’s face, along with computer graphics of how those reconstructions were made.
Accompanying these are discussions of how the person’s probable identity had been established, and how the cause of their death has been determined. How did archaeologists decide the man with the staff was the particular Captain they think he was, and how did they determine that the man with the bullet did not shoot himself, and that he died quickly of the injury?
These exhibits were so riveting that even though there were a number of people in the room it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. In addition to the silence there was an atmosphere of almost reverence. Exquisitely done! Photography is not allowed in the building so we didn't get any pictures of the exhibits.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the historic site and riding our bikes on the five mile auto loop. The route crosses several bridges that are not rated for the weight of a motorhome. It’s exciting to see what they’ve done since I was here last, and if I stay out of their way another 20 years who knows what they might find?