Burial shaft found in search for Jamestown founder's sister

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

SHELLEY, England -- Archaeologists trying to exhume the remains of the sister of one of the founders of the first permanent English settlement in North America have found what they believe is her burial shaft.

They want to use DNA from the remains to find out whether a skeleton unearthed in Virginia is that of Capt. Bartholemew Gosnold, who oversaw an expedition that led to the founding of Jamestown in 1607.

British and American researchers began digging Monday beneath the floor of the 12th-century Church of All Saints, where Gosnold's sister, Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, is believed to be buried with her husband.

The inscription on a ledger stone believed to mark the grave was worn off, but archaeologists are confident they have found the right spot.

A 17th-century skeleton found two years ago near Jamestown was buried with a decorative staff carried by sea captains and is the right age to be Gosnold's, said William Kelson, director of archaeology at the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

"We know we have the body of a captain," Kelson said. "We are just taking (identification) one step further" with DNA testing.

Based on records, archaeologists believe Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney is buried underneath the church floor in the English village of Shelley, 60 miles northeast of London.

The inscription in brass on a ledger stone believed to mark the grave has worn off, but archaeologists are confident they have found the right spot.

After raising the stone, the researchers located the burial shaft and are now digging down to locate the graves of husband and wife, who are believed to lie side by side.

If researchers find a female skeleton that matches Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney's profile, they will extract a small portion of tooth or thigh bone for DNA analysis.

Scientists working with skeletal remains can only trace DNA through maternal relatives. A second excavation is under way to recover a DNA sample from Gosnold's niece Katherine Blackerby, whose remains are thought to be in a vault at St. Peter and St. Mary Church in nearby Stowmarket.

Special permission is required for both digs from the Church of England.

"This is the first time the church has agreed to let DNA to be taken from a grave for a scientific project, " said James Halsall of the Diocese of St. Edmundsbury and Ipswich.

He said archaeologists have "worked carefully and slowly and they were able to show good reason how and why they needed to raise the body."

Gosnold received less attention than his contemporary, Capt. John Smith, because his life was cut short by illness at the age of 36, three months after he arrived in Virginia.

"If he had had a chance to write his memoirs, he would be a lot better known," said Paula Neely of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities.

She described Gosnold as "the principal promoter, vice admiral and one of the most influential leaders of the Jamestown colony, which eventually gave birth to the development of the United States."

Born in Grundisburgh in Suffolk county, eastern England, Gosnold lived at Bury St. Edmunds.

In 1602 -- 18 years before The Mayflower left the southern English port of Plymouth with the Pilgrim Fathers on board -- Gosnold sailed his vessel Concord to the future New England.

Records show that during that voyage he named Cape Cod and Martha's Vineyard, which was named for his daughter.

He returned five years later on the ship Godspeed and helped to found the Jamestown settlement.

The National Geographic Society is filming the work for a documentary and is providing funding. The excavation is being done by archaeologists from the Suffolk County Council.

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