Image: Remains believed to be Gosnold
Alexa Welch Edlund  /  AP
Archaeologist William Kelso stands over the remains believed to be of Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold in Jamestown.
updated 6/7/2005 12:24:29 PM ET 2005-06-07T16:24:29

Thirteen years before the Mayflower’s voyage to the New World, Capt. Bartholomew Gosnold oversaw an expedition that led to the founding of the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Now, Virginia preservationists are traveling to England to determine whether a skeleton discovered at the site of the Jamestown colony is that of one of its founders.

Excavations were planned next week at two churches to retrieve DNA samples from the remains of Gosnold descendants — a sister and a niece. Radar surveys were conducted at the churches earlier this year, but the process to extract the genetic material still involves uncertainties.

“In archaeology, the unexpected usually happens,” says William Kelso, director of archaeology at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

Little-heralded pioneer
Gosnold, though largely unrecognized historically, is considered a primary organizer and head of the expedition that led to Jamestown’s founding in 1607. Capt. John Smith’s role received most of the attention because Gosnold became ill and died at age 36 — three months after arriving in Virginia.

“It’s a chance to refocus the history of Jamestown,” said Kelso, who directed the archaeological dig that found the unidentified skeleton in 2003. “This significant leader has been minimized ... because there was so little documentation.”

A DNA match would be confirmation, but other evidence suggests that scientists unearthed Gosnold’s remains outside the site of the Jamestown Fort. The nearly intact skeleton appeared to be that of an English male in his 30s, and a decorative staff used by captains of the era lay on the coffin’s lid.

Genetic samples from Gosnold’s descendants are needed because scientists working with skeletal remains can trace mitochondrial DNA only through maternal relatives.

The Church of England granted permission for the project since the remains of Gosnold’s sister, Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, were believed to be under the floor of Shelley All Saints Church in Suffolk, England. Those of his niece, Katherine Blackerby, were thought to be in a vault at St. Peter and St. Mary Church in Stowmarket.

Bone sample to be obtained
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. No skeletons will be removed from the sites.

“This has gone through so many steps and so many committees for good reason,” 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. Archaeologists planned to 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.

Scientists may have better luck at Stowmarket, where the grave is marked with the name of Blackerby’s husband, Thomas Blackerby.

Kelso said the search will be called off if it is not clear where the graves are or if damage could be done to a building.

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

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