Jamestown in jeopardy: Why the place where America’s story started might have a premature ending

Posted at 4:15 PM, Mar 08, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-10 11:11:14-04

JAMESTOWN, Va. — Jamestown’s roots run deep. It’s the spot where settlers built a permanent English settlement along the James River four centuries ago. These days, archaeologists have been digging, scraping, and sifting the very foundations of the nation.

"This is where America began," David Givens, Director of Archaeology at Jamestown Rediscovery, said. "First peoples first occupied this site for over 10,000 years. First English arrived in 1607."

Givens and his team can’t put a shovel in the ground without hitting pay dirt.

"It is a constant opening up of the past here. Jamestown has constantly given back to us and it has for 30 years," he said."There are generations of archaeology to do here but always reveal something new and exciting every day you show up for work."

Unlike most dig sites, archaeologist Sean Romo said visitors at Jamestown Rediscovery can witness artifacts emerge from depths. Relics that haven’t seen the light of day in hundreds if not thousands of years.

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"This site didn’t just exist in 1607. This is the capital of Virginia till 1699. We have thousands of years of Native American history on this island before that,” Romo said. "Most archaeology is done behind the scenes in the U.S., so this is a special place where we can talk to visitors and say, ‘Hey we just found this and this is what it means.’”

Jamestown has been likened to America’s original Ellis Island with European, Native, and African American cultures converging on this site.

"To be able to think about this is the very location in which John Rolfe and Pocahontas or John Smith walked,” Givens said. “But we’re looking for every part of the 17th Century. Every perspective of those who walked here before us and those who are the founding grandfathers of our nation if you will."

It is a shared history commemorated at the landmark owned by the non-profit Preservation Virginia.

"We certainly are honored to try and disentangle and give those stories back to all of our communities both locally, regionally, and nationally," Givens said.

Serious Threat From Uninvited Guest

But this 23-acre outdoor classroom is under serious threat from an uninvited guest who arrives more frequently and refuses to leave.

Water is washing away our history.

"America’s birthplace is being lost," Michael Lavin, the Director of Collections at Jamestown Rediscovery, said. "We’re feeling the effects of climate change and sea level rise."

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Lavin has watched flooding claim large swaths of once-dry land over the last 28 years.

"That we’ve seen 1.6 feet of sea level rise since the 1920s. Which is only getting worse and it is accelerating," he said.

'Hold Back the Tides. It is Almost Impossible'

Rising tides, stormwaters that don’t drain, and corrosive saltwater are seeping into the site which is destroying untold artifacts buried below.

"The frequency of these events used to be once every three years. Now they are happening five to six times a year which is totally devastating," Lavin said.

Flooding forces Jamestown Rediscovery to close and turn away many of the 200,000 annual visitors. Excavation work is halted.

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"We live it. We have been living with it and that is one of the frustrating things," Givens said. "It keeps us from digging."

The staff is sounding the alarm. If the issue isn’t addressed a significant portion of Jamestown could be soaked in our lifetime.

"It is going to go underwater," David Givens said. "There is no doubt about it, it is going to go underwater. We’re at the verge of being tidal property right now."

Lavin said he believed new infrastructure like berms, pumps, and floodgates could thwart Mother Nature’s relentless march.

"This is one of the clearest areas where you can see evidence of sea level rise," Lavin said. "It is like the expression trying to hold back the tides. It is almost impossible.”

Jamestown is in Jeopardy

Norfolk Southern is gifting Jamestown Rediscovery $1 million to help stem the tide. But the project will ultimately require $42 million to complete.

"The picture is bleak. If we don’t do anything then it goes underwater,” Givens said. “Everything we talk about. That shared history of Virginia’s past that is a confluence here on this very ground from where I stand can be lost to climate change.”

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Much digging in the dirt remains at the historic site but its roots are wet.

“Our concern was the artifacts down in the well would start to erode faster than we had time to get to them," Givens said.

Jamestown is in jeopardy. Archaeologists fear that the place where America’s story started might have a premature ending.

"If we understand or care about our nation’s beginnings, that entanglement, then we have to be mindful that we don’t lose Jamestown’s past," Givens said.

Since archaeologists first started digging at Jamestown Rediscovery in 1994 they’ve pulled more than 4 million artifacts from the ground.

"So this is a pretty special place," Lavin said. "If we do not intervene we are going to be losing part of America’s birthplace."

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