Smithsonian scientists announced Tuesday that they’ve discovered the identities of four bodies buried at the historic Jamestown church where John Rolfe and Pocahontas got married.
The men, Rev. Robert Hunt, Capt. Gabriel Archer, Sir Ferdinando Wainman, and Capt. William West, were all leaders who played a role in the Jamestown settlement.
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Scientists identified the men by using historical records and chemically analyzing the bones to figure out what the men ate and where they were from. They used 3-D technology to locate the exact grave sites of the men.
They knew that the men had to have stature in the community because they were buried in an area of the church where only “elite” people would have been laid to rest, and were even able to tell who had been in the community the longest, because his teeth were worn down from the harsh American diet comprised largely of corn.
The men lived a turbulent time in the country’s history, when food was scarce and many were struggling to survive the New World. They were buried between 1608 and 1610 and were there for the first years of the colony, which was the first permanent English settlement in America.
“You’re able to get from these kinds of investigations, from very careful archeology and the forensic analysis, you’re able to get information that you simply cannot get from the history books,” Smithsonian’s head of Physical Anthropology Douglas Owsley said at a news conference at the Natural Museum of History Tuesday.
Archer is the most intriguing man of the four.
He not only was a “nemesis” of John Smith’s but he also might have been secretly Catholic in a community that was intensely Anglican. The researchers found a silver box in his coffin that appears to be a Catholic relic, containing bone fragments and a container used to hold holy water.
They were able to tell that Wainman and West were well-off due to the amount of lead in their bones, which signals that they had pricier metal objects in their homes. In West’s case, the scientists found decayed bits of a military leader’s sash in the soil in his coffin.
Owsley stressed that the story of Jamestown was more than just Pocahontas and John Smith.
“These were individuals that were so critical to the foundation of America as we know it today, yet we don’t know their names,” he said.
The researchers found these remains in the nick of time, as Jamestown could be underwater by the end of this century due to rising sea levels.
Rachel Witkin is a desk assistant at the Washington bureau of NBC News.