Jamestown Archaeologist Dr. William Kelso’s Fascinating Desk

by Ryan Miller

By Angela Blue

A person’s desk says a lot about them. After all, a desk contains the objects that we surround ourselves with day in and day out. Some items are necessities required for getting work done while others are the mementos that remind us why we’re working so hard in the first place.

As we began pondering the people in Coastal Virginia who may have the most fascinating desks, one of the first who came to mind was Dr. William (Bill) Kelso, head archaeologist of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project. Kelso’s fascination with Jamestown led him to begin excavations in 1994 at a site where he assumed the original fort of the Jamestown colonists to be. Since then, he’s unearthed hundreds of thousands of early 17th-century artifacts, palisades and other foundation structures and skeletal remains of some of the first colonists. He’s authored several books on American archeological projects, including his most recent, Jamestown, the Truth Revealed (2017). Here are just a few of the fascinating findings on Kelso’s desk.

Slate: In 2009, Kelso and his team found a slate tablet in James Fort, dating back to 1610. The writings had been erased, but each sketch left grooves in the surface of the slate. The original slate is now on display at Historic Jamestown. Kelso keeps this piece of slate on his desk to experiment by writing on it with different objects, such as a piece of clay pipe stem, which acts as chalk. “Once you scratch on it, you can never quite erase anything,” he says. “That was one of the most intriguing artifacts that we’ve found.”

Book: When asked what the most unexpected item he’s discovered at Jamestown has been so far, Kelso responds, “Jane.” In 2012, a mutilated human skull, dating to 1610, was found in a trash deposit at a James Fort cellar or kitchen. Forensic analysis determined that the bones were the remains of a 14-year-old girl, whom the archaeologists came to call Jane. “It’s proof positive that there was survival cannibalism going on there during a time of great starvation,” Kelso says. “And I never really believed it. There were records … but I didn’t believe it.” In Kelso’s latest book, Jamestown, the Truth Revealed, the cover portrays a forensic sculpture reconstruction of Jane’s face, and the sixth chapter details Jane’s discovery.

Etched Glass Figurines: A laser technique was used to create these intricate, 3D etchings. One is a rendering of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford, one of the oldest libraries in Europe. As a historian, Kelso has researched documents at Bodleian, including records of Jamestown. “I’m a card-carrying Bodleian Library user,” he says. The other is a rendering of a church at Dresden, the capital city of Saxony in Germany, which was bombed during World War II. “I have them because of the technique,” he says. “I think it’s incredible.”

Jug: This ceramic German Bartmann jug was the container of choice during the late 16th and all throughout the 17 centuries. This particular jug is modern, but it resembles many of the Bartmann jugs that Kelso has discovered throughout the years, some of which were found intact.

Medal: In 2012, Kelso received an Honorary Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). This order of knighthood is one of Britain’s highest honors. The CBE is awarded for prominent national or regional roles and to those making distinguished or notable contributions in their own specific areas of activity. Queen Elizabeth II toured Historic Jamestown with Kelso in 2007 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of America’s first English settlement.


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