By Kevin Greer
Lakeside Communications Manager
Dr. William Kelso is no stranger to Lakeside. He grew up on the Marblehead Peninsula and is a 1959 graduate of Lakeside High School. He visits for a week every summer, spending most of his time fishing for perch and taking in the beautiful views of the waterfront.
Kelso is a well-known archaeologist who directed the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and will give the final keynote speaker presentation of the season at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22 in Hoover Auditorium.
The Jamestown Rediscovery Project is an organized effort to uncover and preserve artifacts from the Jamestown Colony, the first permanent English settlement in North America.
Kelso began working in the field of archaeology after earning a master’s degree in early American history at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. He then earned a PhD in historical archaeology from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Kelso became an expert on colonial America and pioneered the use of archaeology to learn about slavery during the period. He recently finished writing his third book with a release date yet to be determined. He will be signing his other books while in Lakeside.
Kelso took the time to do an interview with The Lakesider newspaper from his home in Virginia. He discussed how the Jamestown Project got started, some of his discoveries and a few celebrity tourists he has guided around the site.
What are you going to talk about in your keynote?
Kelso: The archaeology of Jamestown. This is the first permanent English settlement. A lot of people get Jamestown confused, especially as you go north, with Plymouth Rock, but this was the beginning in 1607, and it was permanent. I’m going to give a presentation with video and images.
How did the Jamestown Rediscovery Project get started?
Kelso: In a sense, it started at Lakeside High School. I was in a history class and the teacher said, “Today, we’re going to talk about the beginning of English America, and it began in Plymouth. There was Jamestown, but that failed.” I remember arguing with him and saying it was a town with something there. One of my classmates reminded me of that argument. From then on, it was in the back of my mind.
Later, I went to Baldwin Wallace on a football scholarship and got into history. I just loved it. I went to William & Mary for graduate school in history and got a fellowship working as an intern under a British archaeologist who was there. From that point, I knew what I wanted to do. I went to Jamestown, and they told me that the site of the town washed into the river. I thought that was a bummer. However, I knew there was something more because there has been archaeology in the latter part of the town but not the original fort. That was what got lost.
I became an archaeologist and began working on 17th-century sites. I thought somebody must check to see if that’s true. It was an area that had never been done before. I kept talking to the landlord, it was privately owned, but was part of a national park. After talking for 10 years, I got the chance. I quit my job as an archaeologist at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s house). That’s a long answer to how I wound up looking for the lost fort we found.
What are some of the things that you discovered at the site?
Kelso: The complete outline of the fort took a long time because it was over an acre in size. We traced it looking for signs in the soil of fort walls, then connecting the sides around until it came out like it was described in the records. It was a triangular fort. We found the outline, but it took 10 years to uncover all that. In 2007, there was the 400th Anniversary of Jamestown Settlement. I wanted to find the fort before the anniversary because I thought Queen Elizabeth would be there. You know what? That happened, and I was with her for 25 minutes walking around. A lot of governors, presidents and people showed up to see the site because it was a new discovery. The lost was found. The queen got back to me, and I was awarded a commander of the British Empire, a degree of chivalry of knighthood.
Is there anything else that you’re hoping to discover?
Kelso: I’m no longer active there. In my new book, Jamestown Archaeology, Remains to be Seen, I get into the fact that the fort was much bigger than we thought. Now on the site, people I trained are finding that it’s much bigger, so there’s plenty to find.
How many people are involved in the project?
Kelso: There are around 25. We found a collection of artifacts, like armor, ceramics and every sign of life you can imagine. People need to go to Jamestown because you get to understand the story much better because you can smell and touch it.
For somebody who has never been to Jamestown, describe what it’s like.
Kelso: It’s a 1,500-acre island. There are 23 acres that are privately owned, and that’s where the fort, the state house, church and all the major public and private sites are located. What you’ll see is a church tower and now a reconstructed church from 1900. The fort is marked with bright, long palisades. There are tours by archaeologists that show what they’re working on currently, as well as what’s been found.
What does the future of the project look like?
Kelso: I think it will be ongoing. It’s that moment of discovery where people can see it happening and you can actually touch the things that were last used 400 years ago. They’re never going to run out of space, and now there’s a real threat going on. A lot of erosion has taken place on the James River. These excavations have to be quick. Other mitigating measures can be done to save some parts of this 1,500-acre island.
Talk a little more about your books.
Kelso: My third one is presenting the remains of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement. Jamestown the Truth Revealed, is about the things that were last touched by people four centuries ago. Specifically, it’s about the fort and how it was expanded, built, redesigned and enlarged. There is evidence of Virginia Indian women living in the fort that no one knew before. I have a discussion of Pocahontas, the Indian princess. I became fascinated by the archaeology of her because she died in England, and I wanted to find her exact burial place. I spent about a month in England going through evidence of where she might be. There’s a church that claims she’s in there. Then there was an insurrection, where Jamestown was burned to the ground in 1676 because there was a group of frontiersmen who were shut out of the inside of the government, so they attacked the town and burned it to the ground. We found a burned church, state house and public buildings.
A couple of years ago, you appeared on a TV show called “Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour.” What was it like meeting Ozzy Osbourne and other celebrities who visited there?
Kelso: My head has been in the past and in a hole in the ground for so long, I had no idea who he was. He told me he was going to show up, but I had no idea. Patricia Cornwell, the crime novelist, got really interested and wound up supporting the project. I gave John Grisham a tour and George W. Bush has been here. I could probably make a list of celebrities who have visited.
Anything you want to add?
Kelso: I’m just honored to come back to my hometown and my family will be coming. I’m going to meet a couple of my classmates when I’m in Lakeside. I’m a perch fan and they’re kind of scarce where I live. They’re in Lake Erie, and my cousin will help me find them.