June 7, 2005

Virginia Scientists Go Abroad to ID Skeleton

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) -- Virginia preservationists are nearing the end of a two-year quest to determine whether a skeleton discovered at the site of the Jamestown settlement is that of one its founders.

William Kelso, who directed an archaeological dig early in 2003 in which the skeleton was found, leads a group leaving for England on Tuesday to assist in removal of DNA samples from the remains of a sister and niece of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold.

"It's a chance to refocus the history of Jamestown," Kelso said. "This significant leader has been minimized ... because there was so little documentation."

Gosnold, in his mid-30s, was second-in-command of the band that arrived to establish the colony on May 14, 1607. About three months later he became ill and died.

Gosnold had begun planning the colony with Capt. John Smith in 1605 following an expedition to New England, where he named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard.

The venture comes as Virginia preservationists prepare for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Jamestown's founding. The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities will set up a monthlong exhibit of colony artifacts at a London museum.

Curator Bly Straube said the exhibit at the Museum in Docklands will feature items that excited colonists enough "to write home about," such as Indian clay pots and tobacco pipes. Italian beads exchanged for food and freshwater pearls will be displayed, as well as mother-of-pearl earrings believed to have belonged to Pocahontas.

British archaeologists will conduct excavations next week at two churches in an effort to match Gosnold's DNA. The remains of Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, his sister, are believed to be under the floor of Shelley All Saints Church, and those of niece Katherine Blackerby are thought to be in a vault at St. Peter and St. Mary Church in Stowmarket.

The project - the first in which Church of England officials agreed to removal of DNA from graves for a scientific project - has been planned in painstaking detail.

"This has gone through so many steps and so many committees for good reason," said Kelso, who is the APVA's director of archaeology. "The plan has to be very well thought out."

In one of the last planning steps, scientists conducted radar surveys at the two churches earlier this year. But the process to extract the genetic identifying material still involves uncertainties, Kelso said.

At the Shelley church, for instance, the inscription in brass on a ledger stone believed to mark the grave of Tilney's husband has worn off. The archaeologists will raise the stone, then look for the outline of a burial shaft and excavate down to the graves of husband and wife who would be side by side.

But the gravestone could be out of place.

"In archaeology, the unexpected usually happens," Kelso said.

The scientists may have an easier time at Stowmarket, where the grave is marked with the name of Blackerby's husband, Thomas Blackerby.

Several church representatives will observe the excavations, and Kelso said the search will be called off if it's not clear where the graves are or if damage could be done to a building.

"If the odds start dropping, none of us would want to keep going," he said.

If archaeologists believe they have found the right graves, a Smithsonian Institution scientist will make a forensic analysis of the skeletons and obtain a bone sample. Kelso stressed that no skeletons will be removed from graves.

To determine whether the DNA is a match, the samples will have to go to a laboratory either in Britain or the United States.

The remains of Gosnold's sister and niece are being sought because scientists working with skeletal remains can only trace DNA through maternal relatives.

Either could provide a match, Kelso said, but he's hoping both will be found.

"In science one test is usually not that conclusive," he said.

The DNA project would be confirmation, but other evidence has made scientists fairly confident that they unearthed Gosnold in a dig outside the site of the Jamestown fort. The nearly intact skeleton is almost certainly that of an English male in his 30s, for one thing, plus a decorative staff used by captains of the era lay on the coffin's lid.

"I think in a way we've already succeeded," Kelso said. The discovery of the skeleton and pursuit of DNA samples from Gosnold relatives have "brought him to the forefront."


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