With a charter from King James I, 104 artisans, craftsmen, and laborers boarded three small ships to establish England's first permanent foothold in the New World in 1607. They called it Jamestown.
Yesterday, researchers announced they have discovered the remains of the band's original fort along a river ridge in Virginia. It represents a major archaeological find. The discovery will yield important clues about a key development in North American history - and provide valuable information about early colonial life.
It puts Jamestown "absolutely at the top of the list of historic archaeological sites," says James Deetz, an archaeologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Until now, "we've never had a look at the continent's initial English settlement."
The find also represents a triumph of instinct over conventional wisdom. For decades, scientists assumed that what remained of the triangular fort had been lost - swallowed up long ago by the James River.
But the perseverance and intuitions of a handful of researchers have now produced what many agree will be a unique window on America's past. Indeed, researchers at the site estimate that fully 80 percent of the area covered by the fort remains on dry land - and can be recovered.
"This solves a mystery," says George Stuart, vice president for research and exploration at the National Geographic Society in Washington, which helped fund the effort. "They've located something that we thought was lost. And it gives tangible expression to a milestone in North American history."
Yesterday's announcement caps two years of painstaking excavations marking the approach of Jamestown's 400th anniversary in 2007. Until 1994, the riverside plot on Jamestown Island, owned by the Association for the Protection of Virginia Antiquities, had never been the object of a major excavation, says APVA senior archaeologist Nick Luccketti.
BUT from 1954 to 1956, the APVA allowed National Park Service archaeologists to dig test trenches to see what would turn up. The trenches yielded a number of 17th-century artifacts, giving the current team a clue that perhaps some of the original settlement hadn't been lost to the James River after all.
Another clue came from the presence of Confederate earthworks in the area and, underneath those, Revolutionary War earthworks. These were built on a ridge within the APVA boundaries. "If professional soldiers during the Civil War thought this was a good spot for fortifications, and professional soldiers from the Revolution thought this was a good spot, why wouldn't professional soldiers from the 17th century?" Mr. Luccketti asks, referring to the settlement's leaders.
Meanwhile, excavations elsewhere during the past 20 years were turning up early 17th-century forts, giving APVA researchers a better idea of what to look for. These forts "were quite different than expected," Luccketti says. "The structures were not that grand and didn't leave a major footprint in the ground." Instead, one had to look for a 1-foot-wide trench with holes for stockade posts that were only 10-to-12 inches wide.
The current dig, headed by APVA archaeologist William Kelso, immediately began turning up pottery shards. The first significant find was a series of pits and a well that yielded more than 44,000 artifacts, some dating from the 1590s.
The weapons, armor, jewelry, pottery, and other artifacts "all suggested the right period," Luccketti says. "But we needed something that said, 'fort.' "
The first hint came with the evidence of a stockade fence. The palisade's remains had no European artifacts - a signal that it was part of the site's earliest structure. "The wall told us we were hot on the trail," Luccketti says, but the team didn't find its "smoking gun" until last spring.
After excavating successive sections of the palisade, archaeologists discovered a circular bastion typical of 17th-century forts. And they discovered the beginning of a second palisade, also joined to the bastion. The angle formed by the two walls precisely matched a 1610 description of the original fort's design.
"This is exciting archaeology," says David Orr, chief of the division of archaeology and historical architecture at the National Park Service's Valley Forge Historical Park. "They've got the early kernel" of the Jamestown settlement.
Dr. Orr has been working on a five-year archaeological survey of Park Service land abutting the APVA plot. Noting that humans have inhabited the area for at least 8,000 years, he says that the NPS is planning a program of digs aimed at farms and native American settlements, which will help track the evolution of the Jamestown settlement as it spread beyond the fort's three walls.