Posted on July 25, 2018

Jamestown Mystery: Whose Bones Have Been Uncovered?

Michael E. Ruane, Washington Post, July 23, 2018

The skeleton was beautifully laid out in a formal English-style burial, hands at the sides, palms down, the body probably pinned up in a shroud.

The arms, legs and ribs were largely intact. But the skull, which was crucial, was gone.

So when Mary Anna Hartley, picking at the dirt in the bottom of the 400-year-old grave, stumbled on the next best thing, she yelled, “Teeth!”

David Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery, standing not far away, punched his right fist into his left hand, and exulted, “Teeth.”

This was Sunday, and a breakthrough in the excavation this week of a grave believed to be that of Sir George Yeardley, who oversaw the first representative government assembly in English America, and was also one of history’s first U.S. slaveholders.

A team of archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery, aided by experts from the Smithsonian, has been gradually uncovering the skeleton, which was buried in a prominent spot in one of the first churches here.


Working in shifts, and using dental tools, tiny trowels and brushes, they began removing the last few inches of soil over the skeleton Saturday and had it almost uncovered Monday.

Jamestown, a haunting spot on the James River 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., is the site of the first permanent English settlement in the United States, and the ground beneath is populated with the graves of hundreds of the early colonists.

The story of Yeardley, whom most people have never heard of, has risen in importance recently because next summer marks the 400th anniversary of the famous assembly he convened.

It also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival on U.S. soil of the first enslaved Africans, some of whom he purchased, according to historians.

Thus, he represents two of the chief veins in American history — representative government and slavery, which took root in the same summer, in the same place, in the person of the same man.

But first the scientists here must determine: Is the person in the grave George Yeardley?


It was clear from the bones that this was a robust man in his late 30s or early 40s. Yeardley, who served as governor of the colony three times, was about 40 when he died in 1627.


But the Jamestown experts badly wanted to find the skeleton’s head, because DNA can most readily be retrieved from a part of the skull right in front of the ear, they said.

Ground penetrating radar imaging had indicated that the skull was likely present.


Then, about 10 a.m. Sunday, came Hartley’s discovery. Teeth can be a good source of DNA. Plus, hardened plaque on teeth, even 400 years old, can be examined for clues to diet and bacteria.


One of the experts on site is Turi King, the geneticist and archaeologist from Britain’s University of Leicester who helped identify the remains of King Richard III when they were found under a parking lot in 2012.


The teeth proved to be key in another way. The Jamestown scientists remembered that last fall they had found part of a jaw and a skull in an adjacent grave that seemed unrelated to this dig. They wondered: Could those pieces be from the missing skull?


Yeardley became a key figure in Jamestown, serving as the governor in 1616 before returning to England in 1617. He was reappointed governor in 1618 and was knighted by King James I that November.

He sailed back to Jamestown in 1619 bearing a historic set of instructions from the Virginia Company, which controlled the colony.

His orders were to establish “a laudable form of government . . . [for] the people there inhabiting.”