No Bone Unturned: The Adventures of a Top Smithsonian Forensic Scientist and the Legal Battle for America's Oldest Skeletons - Jeff Benedict (2003)


A National Park Service ranger motioned Owsley and his assistant Kari Sandness through the entrance gate to Jamestown Island. They walked past the Captain John Smith monument and the reconstructed seventeenth-century church, and stopped to examine the excavation underway at the old Jamestown Fort.

In the early 1990s, a historical preservation organization that owns over twenty-two acres at the western edge of Jamestown Island hired archaeologist William Kelso to conduct digs. When Kelso began, only one aboveground remnant—a brick church—stood from the seventeenth-century town. But in 1995 Kelso uncovered signs of the original Jamestown Fort (so named to honor England’s King James), which was the first permanent English settlement in America. Historical records confirmed that on May 13, 1607, more than one hundred men and boys backed by London’s Virginia Company settled Jamestown Island. By 1610 a palisade of planks enclosed a fort, which had been strengthened with five bulwarks, each containing a watchtower.

With no evidence of it existing aboveground, historians had long believed that the original Jamestown Fort had eroded into the James River. Kelso’s excavation exposed sections of the original walls, one bulwark that held a watchtower, a timber building, and more than 250,000 artifacts from the early 1600s. Inside the fort, Kelso found military armor—a helmet, a breastplate, gun parts, sword and dagger parts, powder cartridges, and ammunition ranging from small shot to cannonballs—and coins that predated 1603. He also found two graves, each one containing a skeleton. Kelso invited Owsley to help him excavate the burials and identify the remains. In September, Owsley first visited the site, examined one of the skeletons, and confirmed it was a European colonist who was between seventeen and twenty-two at the time of his death.

On this return visit, Owsley walked to the nearby Parks Service building and met David Riggs, the museum curator. Riggs had the responsibility of sorting out the skeletons recovered from Jamestown Island, separating the English colonists from the Indians. All Indian skeletons had to be repatriated under the NAGPRA law. The English colonists did not. Riggs wanted Owsley to assist him in identifying the skeletons.

Riggs escorted Owsley into the curation room, lined with stacked metal cabinets. Riggs pulled their drawers out one by one, revealing skeletons excavated from the Jamestown graveyard in the 1940s. In 1955 the National Parks Service had excavated a second cemetery on the island, as well as some individual burials that were not included in either of the two graveyards. All of the remains were curated at the Jamestown Museum.

Owsley looked carefully through each drawer, perusing the skeletons. Suddenly he stopped. “Hmm,” he said, picking up a skull to examine it more closely. It had a worm-eaten appearance. “Where’d you get this African?”

Squinting, Riggs cocked his head. The National Parks Service had no record of any African skeletons being excavated at Jamestown, only European colonists and Indians.

“This isn’t an Indian,” Owsley said. “This is an African.”

Riggs had photographs and paperwork on file about the skeleton. When discovered by archaeologists, the skeleton was positioned on its right side, its knees and elbows flexed and its hands clasped together and resting under its right cheek. It was remarkably well preserved.

Owsley examined the skeleton more closely.

Disease, thought Owsley, examining the limbs. The arms and legs are riddled with disease.

He read the identification card in the drawer. “Considering the important part that the Indians of the Powhattan Confederacy had played in the history of Jamestown and the fact that this Indian was the first Indian burial to be found in the site…it should be incorporated in the exhibits at the Jamestown Museum.” The description had been written in 1942 and was based on archaeologists’ observations that the skeleton had shovel-shaped incisors and had not been buried in a Christian manner, both indications that it was not European but, they believed, Indian.

“This is a very important skeleton,” Owsley said. “We definitely need to document this collection.”

Owsley promised to return.