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News: USA
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A skeleton is revealed in the excavation of a prestigious church burial at Jamestown, Virginia. Photo Credit: Smithsonian Channel.
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by Archaeology Newsroom

A skeleton unearthed in Jamestown could be of America’s first governor

One of the first representative-regime politicians and slave owners

Archaeologists have found the remains of an individual they believe was Jamestown’s prominent governor George Yeardley. Yeardley, who died in 1627 at the age of 39, was the one who established the first representative assembly in America, the House of Burgesses, and also one of the continent’s first slaveholders.

The grave was found in the middle aisle of a church, one of the first in the city, on top of which another church was built later. It is aligned with the church’s foundation and contains no deconstruction rubble, so it was probably dug before the church was dismantled in 1639. Also, a large tombstone commemorating a knighthood found in the same church is believed to have sealed his grave.

The skeleton was at a quite good condition but only the jaw and several teeth survived from the head. However, they matched a skull which had been found at another point, so archeologists concluded it had been dislocated due to later digging or building at the site.

There are many graves of early colonists in the area but the position of this one indicates a person of high status was buried there. With the use of ground-penetrating radar, they found a skeleton that matches the data on Yeardley in terms of age and time of death. They hope that the DNA they collected from the remains compared with that of Yeardley’s living descendants will help confirm his identity -or not. This was the first time the ground-penetrating radar technique was used for skeletal remains, but the results were rewarding as the detailed image they had provided matched the actual skeleton when it was dug out.

If the remains are indeed of George Yeardley, the discovery is quite significant. He was a governor who helped maintain the colony in Jamestown when harsh conditions caused the death of many inhabitants. By 1610 the situation had turned so bad that Sir Thomas Gates, who had arrived to offer help, decided to evacuate the colony. However, that’s when George Yeardley arrived on an expedition mission and along with Gates saved the town. Yeardley returned to England in 1616 and after two years he was appointed Captain General and Lord Governor of Virginia. He returned to Jamestown in 1619 and transformed it from a military colony to a civil society. The local Indian peoples were to be included in this plan.

He introduced private property for white males, rule of law and supported the Church of England. He exploited the tobacco production in Virginia at the time and became one of the largest English slave owners, exploiting the land.

Jamestown was the first place in America where private property, rule of law and representative government were established. His venture is considered the first democratic experiment in the America but it is shadowed by racism and slavery.

Excavations at the site have been ongoing since 1994 and have so far yielded millions of artefacts.

NOTES