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Kelso ('64) unearths long-buried truths at James Fort

Kelso welcomes tourists to the rediscovered James Fort. By David Williard.In Tidewater Virginia these days, when people think of Jamestown, they are as likely to think of archaeologist William Kelso (’64) as they are of Captain John Smith. Smith was a leader among the English adventurers who established the first permanent British colony in the New World in 1607. Kelso, nearly four centuries later, not only rediscovered Jamestown Fort, which experts believed had been swallowed by the James River, he also reinserted the bold story of the early colonists’ survival into the canon of American history.

That might not have happened if Kelso, a self-described “Yankee from Ohio,” had gone west to pursue graduate studies. Only the last-minute advice from a professor at Baldwin-Wallace College, where he earned his undergraduate degree, kept him from enrolling in Washington State University. The professor told him that if he wanted to study Colonial American history, he had only one option: the College of William and Mary.

“Without William and Mary, I wouldn’t be standing here,” he said recently as he walked through the middle of the James Fort site. “Without William and Mary, I wouldn’t have come to Williamsburg—no question about that.”

Kelso was a high-school graduate before he became aware of Jamestown by reading a National Geographic magazine article. In northern Ohio, he had been taught that the settling of the country began in Massachusetts. When he enrolled in the College’s Institute of Early American History in 1963, one of the first things he did was drive out to the Jamestown site, where he asked a ranger to show him the location of the original fort. “You’re too late,” the ranger said, and he pointed toward a cypress tree that was growing in the shallow water offshore. “That’s where the fort is.” Kelso looked behind him. “What about this hill?” he asked, pointing to a mound of earth molded as part of a Civil War fortification. The ranger had no answer.

Kelso put Jamestown in the back of his mind while he earned his master’s degree. “I got lost in my studies,” he said. “I almost gave up because it was so difficult, but those professors taught me how to write.” He recalls Thad Tate and William Abbott as faculty members who influenced him. He also remembers James Morton Smith. “He’s the one who got to me on the writing,” Kelso recalled. He remembered Smith’s response to one of his papers. “He looked at me and asked, ‘What is this drivel?’” Kelso, who had thought that the paper was great, admitted that he “soon learned what drivel is.”

Among other mentors whom Kelso met in Williamsburg was the British archaeologist Ivor Noël Hume, who was working with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Kelso volunteered on some of Hume’s excavations and took a summer job at one of Hume’s digs. The combination of studying and digging opened Kelso’s mind to the possibilities of bringing documentary history to archaeology. After receiving his master’s degree, he continued his exploration while earning his doctorate at Emory University, and he went on to make a professional name for himself as director of archaeology for Colonial Williamsburg’s Carter Grove, at Monticello and at Poplar Forest. He also became commissioner of archaeology for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission. Jamestown, however, remained in his consciousness. Finally, in 1993, Kelso helped to convince the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA), which owns the Jamestown Fort site, to hire him to find James Fort. APVA directors, already receiving input from Hume and others suggesting that artifacts in the area warranted a closer examination, agreed. It was not long before Kelso walked onto the shoreline with his shovel and wheelbarrow. The first shovels of dirt produced promising artifacts—a clay pipe and pottery shards that seemed appropriate to the period of the fort.

During that same week, the cypress tree offshore was uprooted and washed against the beach. “Yeah, sometimes I like to think about the symbolism of that,” Kelso said.

New discoveries are made every day at James Fort. Under Kelso’s direction, archaeologists have unearthed more than 1 million artifacts as they have conducted what popular author Patricia Cornwell has called “the autopsy of America.” Kelso’s genius, however, is the manner in which the artifacts have been examined, documented and, most importantly, given to the public. Those processes are detailed in his book, Jamestown: The Buried Truth, in which Kelso tests the physical discoveries, from common pipe bowls and buttons to helmets and a fully loaded firearm, against the existing documentation as well as the “mysteries.” Along the way, Kelso informs readers about DNA investigations, 3-D computer simulations and multilayered digital databases.

An example of Kelso’s bringing the past to life is found in the reconstruction of the skeleton JR, which was found with a bullet wound in its leg. Kelso details the process used in determining whether the bullet was fired from a musket or a pistol and considers whether the death occured from “friendly fire” during drills overseen by John Smith. Kelso also leads the reader through the reconstruction of JR’s face, including piecing together the 102 fragments of the skull and adding depth by using “scientifically generated thickness markers” and a “forsensic sculptor.” Finally, Kelso refers to an account of the fort written by colonist George Percy. It begins, “There were never Englishmen left in a foreign country in such misery as we were in this new discovered Virginia.” Kelso then writes, “It would not have been surprising if civil unrest ran rampant at Jamestown, as there was less and less possibility of getting rich quick and more and more possibility of dying young.”

As he describes Jamestown in the book, arrow wounds suffered by the colonists show their constant vulnerability to attack. Skeletons of rat bones and horse bones near a cooking pit speak of “the starving time.” Other images, particulary the remnants of industry, show motivation and flexible entrepreneurship. They are the ones that underscore the success of Jamestown and define its ultimate legacy, he said.

“What I hope to show is this: Jamestown is concrete. It was the real thing,” Kelso said. “There was a lot of money put into this venture, and it was successful. It was a permanent English settlement. It didn’t fail. There were people here trying to use the land and the resources to try to turn a profit. If that isn’t American, I don’t know what is. That is the thing that germinated here. It’s the pebble in the pond, and the pebble goes in right [here at Jamestown]. Now the ripples are a tsunami.”

As America—and Great Britain—celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, Kelso is a star. His work has been covered by dozens of popular newspapers. He has been profiled in magazines such as The Atlantic and National Geographic. Production is being completed on the ninth documentary. He jokes about it. “Perhaps I should count up all these things and put them on my résumé,” he said.

Kelso does not need a résumé. He seems settled, along with his wife, Ellen, and their basset hounds, on Jamestown Island. When asked about future projects, he joked, “If I didn’t live here, Jamestown would not be a permanent settlement anymore.” When asked about the future, he talks about the work at hand. “We’re going to find some good stuff today. We’re starting to uncover more graves along the bank.” The gravesite, he believes, “is really sacred in the sense that it’s where the first 1607 folks who died were buried all clustered together.” As for practical matters, 60 percent of the fort remains unexplored, a percentage that Kelso, who is 65, translates into another 15 years of archaeological employment. “My lifetime isn’t forever, they say.” In the context of an archaeologist, it may be a joke, as well.

By April, the number of tourists to the site was edging up. Likewise, demands on his time were growing. As he considered what promises to be a busy spring for him, Kelso anticipated attending the College’s commencement ceremonies on May 24, where he will be presented with an honorary degree. “It will mean a lot for two reasons,” he explained. “One is that a few famous people have gone to College here, like Thomas Jefferson, whom I had the chance to study forever,” Kelso said. “The other thing is that I was so challenged by my work there as a student. I had my times when I thought I didn’t belong there, that I wasn’t going to make it. This recognition is a nice feeling, like I’ve finally graduated.”