A Personal Reminiscence

By: John L. Cotter

Originally Published in 1998

View PDF

In conjunction with the 97th Annual Conference of the American Anthropological Association, to be held in Philadelphia in December of 1998, the American Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum is mounting a small exhibit in the Main Entrance to honor two notable Americanises who have been associated with the University and the Museum for many yearns.

The Museum has benefited in so many ways from nearly seven decades of association with Dr. Frederica de Laguna. Her highly significant collections from Alaska, now housed in the Museum, include nearly 8,000 archaeological and ethnographic specimens. Every item is meticulously documented, one of de Laguna’s trademarks from the start of her professional career. Over the years, she has taught numerous classes at Penn, has served as a part-time Visiting Professor, and is now an Honorary Curator of the American Section. Today, at the age of 92, she consults frequently with the staff of the American Section, offering valuable insight and sensitivity to our understanding of Alaskan cultures, past and pre­sent. She also continues to add important objects to the Museum’s Alaskan collection. Like the Eskimo stone lamps which inspired her initial trip to Alaska in 1930, de Laguna’s scholarship, dedication, and professional integrity stand as a bea­con for natives and scholars alike. We are delighted to publish an account of the so-called Freddy Project by Stephen Ferzacca of Bryan Mawr College. It appears below on pg. 27.

Dr John L. Cotter, Curator Emeritus of the Historical Archaeology Section, began his career in the 1930s working on prehistoric sites of the American Southwest and Southeast. (He is, indeed, currently engaged in a collabora­tion with Anthony T Boldurian of the University of Pittsburgh to publish Clovis Revisited: New Perspectives on PaIeoindian Adaptations from Backwater Draw, New Mexico [University Museum Publications]). He is probably best known, however for his instrumental role in fostering the nascent disciplined of historical archaeology. He taught at Penn from 1960 to 1978, offering one of the first courses in historical archaeology in the United States. And he was a founding member first president, and first editor of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Cotter was also for many years a senior archaeologist with the National Park Service, from which he retired in 1977. It was in that position that he headed up the excavation at Jamestown, Virginia, arguably the site where historical archaeology began in this country. Web are privileged to publish below Cotter’s personal account of the pioneering and on-going archaeological investiga­tions at Jamestown.—Ed. 

The 65 years I have been investigating the past coincide almost exactly with the emergence and growth of “scientific” archaeology. During this time there has been a blossoming of new techniques of dis­covery, analysis, and interpretation. I might have gone to work at Jamestown, Virginia, with the redoubtable Jean C. (“Pinky”) Harrington (Fig. 1). I interviewed for a job there while I was a University of Pennsylvania graduate student in 1936. That was the year Pinky was given the responsi­bility of archaeologically investigating Jamestown, site of the first permanent English settlement in America (see box on history of Jamestown), which had become the responsibility of the National Park Service two years earlier. I was already an experienced field man and researcher at prehistoric sites, but with far less expertise than Pinky, my senior by 10 years. I didn’t get that job.


Some 17 years later, however, having served briefly as acting Chief Archaeologist for the National Park Service (NPS), I was detailed to James­town in 1953 to muster a con­tinuation of Pinky’s 1936-1941 archaeological campaign. The objective was to complete the archaeological work at the island before the 1957 celebration of the 350th anniversary of the settlement’s founding (Fig. 2).

Neither Pinky and his staff of field and laboratory people nor I and mine had any training in historic sites archaeology. Ce had done architectural recording of Southwestern missions and was a trained archae­ologist and draftsman, while my experience in historical archaeology was limited to the excavation of a Choctaw chieftain’s burial in Mississippi, and the exploration of the grounds of Van Courtland Manor House in New York. What we didn’t know was that we were pioneering the archaeological investigation of an entire historical community, and launching the subdiscipline of histori­cal archaeology in the process. What Pinky and I and our colleagues experienced at Jamestown was a comprehension of the mis­eries of Jamestown’s 17th century settlers. They had picked one of the best locations for military defense, but one of the worst places to live in the New World: a low-lying tidewater island on the edge of a marsh. They were equipped with obsolete light arms and armor and inappropri­ate clothing; they knew how to erect only inadequate housing, and had only the wrong food and too little of it. The settlers died like flies, but we and our crews survived.

Credit the 20th century over the 17th. Pinky had dug and recorded at Jamestown until 1941, when World War II stopped him. The Civilian Con­servation Corps had supplied his workers—for free—but the CCC had vanished. When I arrived in 1953, I and my colleagues and our small paid crew had three years before the anniversary: to pick up where Pinky left off, work like mad around the calendar, record the structural features and artifacts we found, analyze them, and write up the whole thing.

We underwent the most intensive on-the-job self-instruction yet demanded of an archaeological party since pioneer Pinky’s drive a generation before. Sizing up the funds, the logistics, and the time allowed, I decided there was no way we could continue Pinky’s comprehen­sive excavation of 50-foot-square units by “flat shovel­ing” (Fig. 3). He and his CCC crew had “onion-peeled” the soil little by little over the whole area of each 50-foot grid square, in order to detect any evidence of fea­tures in the earth and record the locations of all artifacts encountered. Not only did we lack the wonderful free manpower of the CCC, but to make matters worse, the areas where Pinky had not worked—which is where our job began—were all grown up in trees and brush, and the NPS had a horror of killing a tree until we proved it grew on an archaeological structure.

So we fell to trenching (Fig. 4): we dug 3-foot­wide trenches on a grid of 50-foot squares from the James River bank on the south to the marshy ground of Back River on the north, and from land owned by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) on the west through James Cittie to Orchard Run on the east (Fig. 5). This ended up being several miles of trenching, affording a section from the surface down to undisturbed earth. When we found evidence of a structure or a scatter of artifacts that might indicate a feature, we would open up the trench to reveal it. It was a bad alternative to Pinky’s method, hut the best avail­able at the time. And it was an effective way to cover the large area that the NPS was responsible for. There was no remote sensing or reliable historical documentation to tie land ownership to existing landmarks. We did have Pinkys excellent field records and the few vague historical records available.

Altogether, we placed 44 structures on the archaeological base-map begun by Pinky: brick founda­tions, evidence of post-in-ground frame houses, wells, brick kilns, lime kilns, forge and smelting pits, an ice storage pit, and boundary ditches, some with brick walls.


Fast forward thirty-five years. By 1992, with the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in view, plans were already under way for another archaeological drive at Jamestown by both the NPS and the APVA. The objec­tives were complementary. The NPS contracted with a consortium of Colonial Williamsburg and College of William and Mary investigators under Marley R. Brown Hi and Cary Carson to mount the “Jamestown Archaeo­logical Assessment.” Its focus was an intensive search of documentary sources, a reevaluation of all of Pinky’s and my work, a survey of the entire island by means of remote sensing, and environmental studies.

Conservation of evidence was a prime concern, so only small and specific exploratory excavations were employed to ground-test the sub-surface features picked up by the electronic sensors. The survey has located 58 prehistoric sites on the island, and fleshed out the neglected story of the post-1698 sequence of occupa­tion, thereby setting the 17th century settlement in a historical context. Archival research, both locally and abroad, has revealed much historical data previously overlooked. Exact land ownership locations in the 17th century are now known for “New Towne” and much of the island, and the activities of the settlers have been more exactly defined (Corning 1998).

The APVA, on the other hand, employed archaeologist William M. Kelso and a team of profes­sionals in the “APVA Jamestown Rediscovery” archaeo­logical project. The goal of the project was to subject the 22-‘½-acre in-holding to a comprehensive explo­ration in quest of early 17th century traces of the First Fort and the settlement in its immediate vicinity. This work has uncovered traces of the timber palisades defin­ing two of the curtain walls and a part of the projecting circular bulwark, together with one of the fort’s post-in­ground interior timber buildings, an exterior brick structure, three backfiiled pits, drainage ditches, and a grave (Fig. 8; see references in Bibliography by Kelso, Luccketti, and Straube). Both organizations have now completed five years of investigation, and their work will continue indefinitely as new evidence comes out from the ground and the archives.

What was done by Pinky and me and our col­leagues was state-of-the-art up to 1957, but it was done without computers and remote sensing and the exten­sive analytical tools now used to identify soils and mate­rials (Fig. 9). However, the objective of archaeology remains the same regardless of how complex and advanced the technology in the field, the laboratory, and during analysis: to try to find all of the material evidence possible and relate it to a living people so as to get an idea of who they were, how they lived, the time they were there, and something of their social setup. Just how far quantitative analysis of material evidence really reflects the morphosis of mind and lifeway, social rela­tionships and attitudes, is difficult to determine. Archaeologists and historians alike would love to enter into the minds of those who lived there 400 years ago—Native and English. The challenge for future investiga­tors is to devise increasingly sophisticated means of identifying people who would otherwise remain indefi­nitely without history, whose thoughts and actions are the subjects of our informed imagination—in particular, the women and children (see box on What’s Missing at Jamestown?). What archaeology turns up at Jamestown in the next hundred years should be exciting; Pd like to follow the story to 2007, when I’ll be a mature 95.

What’s Missing at Jamestown? Women and Kids

Negative evidence in archaeology can sometimes be as illuminating as what you find. The absence of objects associated with women or with children may underline that Jamestown was never a successful, integrated community.

A few boys shipped from England in 1607 with the first settlers (to whom they were not related), but the odds are that they had little luck in growing up and instead perished with the great majority who failed to survive the first two years at Jamestown. As the 17th century progressed and the settlement stabilized, a number of women came over to become wives or indentured servants. (In addition, some women were shipped t6 the Colony of Virginia as felons.) The women, and the girls and boys who eventually arrived or were born there, remain for the most part the “people without history.” Women, for example, were given scant historical notice beyond the observation that some grew conspicuous for brief attempts at finery when the first tobacco prosperity hit Jamestown. The hours, days, and years they spent cooking for families and guests, and spinning, weaving, sewing, and washing clothes we can only imagine.

The excavated finds do little to flesh out this sparse record. With the exception of locally made kitchen utensils and finer imported Dutch Delft, English earthenware, and Chinese porcelain tablewares, little was found that signified the presence of women. A silver hairpin (or “bodkin”) found in the APVA excavations is one of the very few objects that could be associated specifically with a woman (Fig. 10).

Modern children leave a clutter of material objects that will challenge future archaeologists. Not so at Jamestown. No school equipment, such as slate tablets and slate pencils, was found. Of boys’ playthings there is only a fragment of a clay mold for casting a lead soldier in 17th century uniform. Of girls’ life and activities we have only a wad of paper, left over from a school lesson, that was stuffed into a copper thimble found in the bot­tom of a boundary ditch (Fig. 11).

in them to make it difficult for animals to cross (Figs. 6 and 7). We retrieved, identified, analyzed, and recorded thousands of sherds and some whole and partial vessels of ceramic and glass, together with objects of iron, brass, copper, pewter, and lead; examples of leather and wood; seeds; and eggs of parasites which had been preserved in the water-logged earth at the bottom of pits where the air could not rot and destroy them.

To finish in time for the 350th anniversary, in the first six months of 1957 I wrote a book that detailed all of my and Pinky’s work to that date (Cotter 1994 [1958]). It summarized our two campaigns of excavation, but also aimed to show what remained to be done by future research at Jamestown and other 17th century sites in Virginia and neighboring states, with rapidly improving technology and new research resources. I wrote, presciently, as it proved: “in 1957 systematic trench testing at Jamestown ended, it is hoped, forever. New field techniques . . . [such as] proton magnetome­ter . . . should be employed at sites like Jamestown—even if we must wait until the celebrations of 2007 to use the new techniques” (1994:166).

Cite This Article

Cotter, John L.. "Jamestown." Expedition Magazine 40, no. 3 (November, 1998): -. Accessed February 28, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/jamestown/

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.