Published July 27, 2006
RICHMOND, Va. – Sometime around 1610, archaeologists figure, a thirsty colonist in Jamestown set his brass pistol on the side of a well as he pulled up some water and accidentally knocked the weapon in.
It's one explanation for a cache of rare finds the archaeologists fished up Tuesday from the bottom of a 400-year-old well at an overlooked corner of Historic Jamestowne, a national park.
The items found at the site of America's first permanent English settlement included the Scottish pistol, a man's leather shoe and a small lead plaque reading "James Towne" — the equivalent of a Colonial luggage tag.
Besides Indian artifacts, the items are among the oldest ever unearthed in America.
"They're the earliest you could find in what is now the United States," said William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.
The group owns about 22 acres of Jamestown Island, including the southwestern corner, where researchers made the discovery.
The site is in the heart of what began as a military outpost, an area few thought could be pinpointed, he said.
"It was thought that that site had washed into the river and couldn't be found," he said. "I had an idea it could."
At its peak, Jamestown was home to about 250 settlers and part-time residents — legislators who traveled there for America's earliest governmental sessions, he said.
A team of 12 archaeologists started digging Monday through what amounted to their trash.
Finds included a halberd, a 17th-century ceremonial staff often carried by military sergeants; a hammer; and an intact ceramic bottle that was made in Germany and could date to 1590, Kelso said.
Insects, plant life and even the white oak timber used to line the 15½-foot-deep well will offer further clues to the environment in the colonists' day, Kelso said.
The items were taken to an onsite lab to be cleaned, examined and eventually displayed at the site's newly opened museum, called the Archaearium.
Wells like this one would have been used until the water ran dry — likely because of muddy marsh water seeping in — then converted to dumps, Kelso said.
So how did someone's shoe end up at the bottom?
"By accident," he said. "That's how you get such interesting things."