About 180 people filled Doris Duke Theatre for archeologist William Kelso’s free talk, and the history and archeology buffs weren’t disappointed. He is the head of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project and is one of America’s foremost archaeologists in Early American history. He told the tale of how the milestone Jamestown dig started in 1994 with just him and a shovel in a public park in Virginia—colleagues were skeptical. (He showed a photo of him in a small cordoned off square on a green lawn, which elicited chuckles.) Going by 400-year-old maps and other documents, Kelso just went on a hunch that the very first British settlement in North America hadn’t sunk into the James River, as most people believed. That day in 1994, Kelso found a tiny shard of pottery. He was overjoyed. A woman who had been watching him asked “What ARE you doing?” Kelso excitedly showed her the shard and she backed away like he was a crazy man. Fifteen years later, Kelso and his hardworking team’s finds are rewriting history books on earliest Colonial America.
It was fascinating getting an inside look at an archeological dig from one man’s hunch to a full-blown unearthing of a town. Kelso showed video of the ongoing excavation of a well. We got to see a eureka moment when an archeologist lifts a halberd, a pitchfork-like weapon, out of the muddy gunk. Kelso explained that the tips had been bent as if to fish something out of the well, and then showed an image of a corroded 17th-century Scottish pistol. “They may have been trying to get this,” he explained. Then he showed an x-ray of the gun, revealing that it was still loaded with two balls. Here is other cool stuff they’ve found.
Kelso made it clear that he is not flag waving, and is very conscious and respectful of indigenous cultures, and what they endured post-contact. His project is also making important finds of the Powhatan culture, and the relationship between them and John Smith and Jamestown. He showed a clip from the Terence Malick film “The New World,” on which he was a consultant, and said that the imagined first meeting between Powhatan and Briton is as accurate as can be with the information we have.
Kelso likes connecting dots, and he compared Jamestown leader John Smith to Capt. James Cook, revealing how both were British men who went out and skillfully mapped worlds unknown to Europe. He also said he’d like to come back as an astronaut archeologist—because what if those moon rocks are artifacts?
Many thanks to the Academy’s Kita McCord (pictured above with William Kelso in the Doris Duke Theatre) for organizing Kelso’s talk, and his free workshop for O‘ahu teachers on Saturday. She has an “in”—her brother Danny Schmidt has been working with Kelso since the very first Jamestown dig, when he was 15 years old.
It’s been a busy weekend of enlightenment at the Academy—about 150 people went to the theatre yesterday to hear Elizabeth Gill Lui’s talk on architectural preservation in China.