Virginia’s historic sites go hands-on

A sample of Fort-Period artifacts, including delftware apothecary jar, Martincamp neck fragment, crucible, Border ware candle stick, Bartmann jug fragment, copper scrap, cloth seal, lead shot, copper-alloy jetton, and fishhook, at Preservation Virginia.
A sample of Fort-Period artifacts, including delftware apothecary jar, Martincamp neck fragment, crucible, Border ware candle stick, Bartmann jug fragment, copper scrap, cloth seal, lead shot, copper-alloy jetton, and fishhook, at Preservation Virginia. Preservation Virginia

Hip-deep in a 17th-century cellar pit, archaeologist Danny Schmidt gambols out of the hole and can’t wait to show us his catch of the day on a steamy 93-degree afternoon at Historic Jamestowne, Virginia.

He borrows a wooden tray from his archaeological colleague who’s teaching grade-school Indiana Joneses. He pulls out horse and cow teeth — “this shows us what they ate” — plus an encrusted nail, oyster shells and pottery shards from around the world.

“And here’s a quartz crystal faceted bead,” Schmidt says with boyish glee that belies his 22 years in the trenches of America’s first permanent New World settlement, founded in 1607. “This was made by a highly skilled worker, probably in Western Europe.

“We’re chasing an addition to the original James Fort, which was expanded in 1608. How do we know this? Captain John Smith told us.” It was Smith who wrote in 1608 that this cove on the James River was “a verie fit place for the erecting of a great cittie.”

Clearly, burrowing into the past of our English ancestors and sifting through the detritus of their lives has become Schmidt’s mission since he joined the Jamestowne staff at 16. While his enthusiasm has only grown, he’s discouraged by trends in the wider world.

“I grew up in Williamsburg, and I’ve seen attendance at our historic sites go down and down. Fewer and fewer care about our history. What better place to galvanize our youth,” he said with a gesture toward the school kids at the edge of the dig, “than a place like this, where we find new things every day?”

To compete with limitless demands on modern attentions, Jamestown Recovery at Historic Jamestowne and its fellow heritage properties are counter-programming with interactive tours and exclusive hands-on experiences. Static exhibits may be OK as backdrop, but the age of the selfie demands more seeing, doing and feeling. Here’s a sampler in Virginia’s Historic Triangle.


Digging Jamestowne

Want to step into an archaeologist’s dusty boot steps for a day? Just sign on for the “In the Trenches Tour” led by William Kelso, director of the Jamestown Rediscovery’s archaeology team at Historic Jamestowne.

This is the man who challenged the popular assumption that the original Jamestown was lost to James River shoreline erosion — he first put a shovel into the soil in 1994. Fueled by the discovery of James Fort’s foundations and more than two million unearthed artifacts, Kelso and his team have been digging ever since.

Most of those artifacts are safely catalogued and curated in the Rediscovery Research Center vault at Historic Jamestowne. Your ticket inside? Just book an intimate, 10-person “Curator’s Artifact Tour.”

Inside the vault, the trash-now-treasures pulled from Captain John Smith’s well are lovingly spread across a vast table. Scores of shards, looking like a wild night at a Greek taverna, dominate the room.

Senior curator Merry Outlaw quietly shares the joy of this tabletop. “This is a very tightly dated find. We know they dug the well in late 1608” and filled it in sometime late spring 1610.

The well has yielded pottery shards from Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and, of course, England. The surprise was Chinese export pottery.

“Chinese porcelain was first arriving in England in the 1590s, and it’s already in John Smith’s well before 1610,” Outlaw said. “Everything we find speaks to many aspects of life, trade and interaction with Indians.”

To help put the history in perspective, many of Historic Jamestowne’s prize artifacts make their way to the onsite Archaearium. “We’re digging up the garbage from 400 years,” said Mark Summers, manager of public and educational programs, “and showing how normal these people were.”

The exhibits trace the settlement’s story from the first footfall of 104 male settlers on May 14, 1607, through the day in 1699 when the Virginia capital moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg.

The Archaearium is the place to see why Historic Jamestowne has twice made the world’s Top 10 most important finds on Archaeology Magazine’s annual list. In 2010, archaeologists discovered the footprint of the fort’s 1608 church, the first significant English church structure in North America.

In 2013, the magazine honored the team’s discovery of the bones of “Jane,” the first forensic proof of survival cannibalism in any European colony in North America. With the Powhatan Indians besieging the fort during the winter of 1609-10, the settlers struggled through “the starving time.”

Only 60 of 300 colonists survived. Archaeologists suggest that the young woman they call “Jane” was about 14 and probably a servant. Her bones — pieces of her skull and the top of a tibia — tell the tale that after her death, Jane’s body was butchered for food. Now this young girl, Summers said, “is the most famous woman at Jamestowne after Pocahontas.”

Disparate cultures

Just a mile down the road from Historic Jamestowne, costume experts at the Jamestown Settlement work to balance a complex mission. How to accurately dress three disparate cultures at the point of contact: English, American Indians and Africans, all converging on Jamestown, Virginia?

The staff welcomes costumers-for-a-day during “Concerning Linen, Leather and Silk,” one of the premium theme tours offered as an add-on to admission. It’s a chance to see Samantha Bullat, historic clothing technician, chalk the slash lines for Master Wat Raleigh’s new doublet and trousers. An interpreter will step out as the son of Sir Walter Raleigh resplendent in blue silk, his look recreated from a painting in the museum’s collection.

The team is also hand-stitching a burgundy silk overcoat for Pocahontas, a Powhatan Indian woman who was kidnapped by Capt. Samuel Argall in 1613 and brought to Jamestown. She studied English and Christianity and married colonist John Rolfe in the Jamestown church in 1614. They later sailed to England with their son, Thomas, and met the king and queen.

A formal portrait of Pocahontas guides every step of the creation. She looks out serenely in her long-sleeved gown, men’s-style hat and doublet.

Pocahontas has been immortalized, but the rest of her Algonquin-speaking people left fewer traces. “The Indians didn’t have a written language,” said Chris Daley, historical clothing manager, “so we’re left with English interpretations of their clothing. We have no extant garments from the Powhatans, so we use English portraits.”

The tailoring team also modifies Indian dress for modern sensibilities. The interpreters are not bare-chested but rather wear one-shoulder mantles. Their clothes encircle their bodies, unlike the authentic leather aprons that left behinds bare.

African costumes also come from secondary sources. Africans were first brought ashore in Jamestown in 1619, when an English privateer captured a Spanish slave ship en route to Mexico. Daley and his team refer to watercolors painted in the Congo/Angola region of Africa and again cover up more of the interpreters’ bodies.

“To our 2015 eyes, we think they’re naked,” Daley said. “But when you see their tattoos and jewelry, they are just as much individuals as anyone else.”

The tailoring shop is a world of complex pattern-making and hand-stitching, recreating two centuries of clothing in linen, wool and silk. The team clothes more than 300 personalities who interpret history in the Powhatan Indian Village, The Ships, James Fort and the Riverfront Discovery Area.

Visitors who book the “Concerning Linen, Leather and Silk” tour can try on period costumes and take home a small embroidery project as a memento. And they can feel lucky that they aren’t limited to John Smith’s packing list for English women setting sail: two skirts, one pair of stockings and one bodice. Hello, New World.

American Revolution Museum

The Battle of the Capes roils all around, left, right, overhead. Suddenly seats rock with each cannon boom, and gun smoke rolls in. You’re engulfed in the most decisive battle of the American Revolution, the struggle we know as the Siege of Yorktown.

Every sense will be engaged at the new American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, which is morphing out of the 1976 Yorktown Victory Center. The surround theater and the rest of the exhibits, set for completion by late 2016, will cover the new nation from 1760 until 1791.

Chief curator Tom Davidson is choosing artifacts now, planning on 500 of the choicest for the inaugural. For armory, he’s chosen 1768 pistols made in England, a German rifle and a Virginia sword forged at Rappahannock. On the domestic side, a small teapot will be contrasted with an oversized pitcher commemorating George Washington.

The Declaration of Independence Rotunda will spotlight a rare broadside version of the Declaration, “printed on or about July 18, 1776,” Davidson said. “It was the first Boston printing.

“The broadside is analogous to the modern-day poster. From these, the news spread out like a tsunami across the country.”

Designers then fast-forward nearly 250 years with interactive screens and animation. “We have to keep the story fresh,” Davidson said. “Museums are always looking for exciting ways to tell their stories.”


Virginia’s Historic Triangle

Jamestown Rediscovery at Historic Jamestown; 757-856-1259;

Jamestown Settlement, 888-593-4682;

Yorktown Victory Center and American Revolution Museum, 888-593-4682;


Virginia Tourism,