Monday, 8 July 2013

Jamestown: America's birthplace?

Aerial view of Jamestown Island
In light of last week's American Independence Day on 4th July, I revisited the 2006 special issue of
Post-Medieval Archaeology on the founding of England's first permanent settlement in North America, Jamestown, Virginia in 1607.

In her article 'Archaeology and the construction of America's Jamestown' Audrey Horning reviews the history of archaeological research on the site and the use of archaeology in the symbolic construction of Jamestown as 'America's Birthplace'. It is argued that the archaeological construction of Jamestown as an American icon ultimately constrains understanding of the site in terms of its broader Atlantic world context, obscuring the motivations, experiences and expectations of the Europeans who made their way to Virginia, and rendering the considerable native presence invisible. Findings from the most recent projects on the Island, placed in the context of past investigations, allow for an evaluation of the significance of Jamestown's archaeology in the twentieth-century. 
The following is an excerpt from the article's introduction:

Jamestown: Girl Scouts hunting for artefacts at Well 20 in 1956
"Jamestown, where England first gained a permanent if precarious toehold in the New World by depositing a fractious group of gentlemen, boys, labourers and ex-soldiers on the shores of a modest island inland from the Chesapeake Bay in 1607, is perhaps the most archaeologically investigated historic site in North America. Since the 1890s, trowels, shovels, bulldozers, and even dynamite have been employed to shift tons of Jamestown soil in search of the roots of a country. Thousands of artefacts were extracted from the earth, the crumbling remains of nearly 100 buildings exposed to curious eyes — even the river was dredged in the hunt for John Smith’s legacy. For over 100 years, the scant physical traces of this early English colonial settlement have been accorded a status and significance arguably far beyond the information provided about the lived experiences of those newcomers and natives who once trod the same muddy soil now deemed sacred."

Dr Horning goes on to conclude that:

"Jamestown is not significant because it was settled in 1607 and therefore can lay claim to being the ‘cradle of the Republic’, or the place where America began. Such a notion not only denies 10,500 years of native life, as well as the 16thcentury Spanish colonial presence in North America and earlier English colonial and commercial endeavours, but more  importantly would have seemed ludicrous to Virginia’s settlers and leaders. It is from their perspective that we must try to understand the meaning behind Jamestown’s archaeological remains. Jamestown’s archaeology can inform us more about the culture of 17th century England than it can about the origins of an elusive American identity."

>> Read the full article for free

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