A team of archaeologists at Historic Jamestown is attempting to solve one of the biggest mysteries of the first English settlements in America: a knight’s gravestone that has been embedded into the floor of a church for almost four hundred years. According to the researchers, the two most likely owners of the grave are colonial Governors Sir George Yeardley and Thomas West.
The tombstone, which is carved with an image of a knight and was once adorned with monumental brasses, is located in an old church in Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
A reconstruction of what Jamestown may have originally looked like (public domain)
Preservation Virginia Team Has Hard Time to Conduct Proper Research Preservation
Virginia Senior Staff Archaeologist Michael Lavin was very honest about the difficulties of this research and all the mysteries the tombstone posed for his team. “This is kind of out of the realm of what we in the conservation department are doing,” he told WY Daily. And went on to explain how his team lacked the required prowess to conduct a proper scientific research in this case, “It is an artifact, but it is more of a monument. One of the most important things for us is knowing our limitations. We’re archaeological conservators. It’s a completely different field than monuments conservation. The things we hold are never this heavy.”
Who’s the Owner of the Body Beneath?
So, the main question and undoubtedly the greatest mystery in this research revolves around the identity of the body beneath the tombstone. Hayden Bassett, Assistant Curator with Preservation Virginia, claims that by the process of elimination, the two most possible candidates are colonial Governors Sir George Yeardley and Thomas West, The Lord de la Warre. The team focused on the study of the family records of the two men in order to solve the mystery, “When you’re studying mortuary practices, when you’re studying monuments, you never want to go to the records of the person who died, you want to go to the records of their offspring, of their family members who are still living. They’re the people who are largely going to be dealing with the logistics of getting a massive stone over here,” Basset told WY Daily.
After Preservation Virginia conducted detailed research and went through the journals of both men’s extended families, Basset speculates that they may have found mentions of the stone by Yeardley’s step-grandson Adam Thorowgood II. “What they mention is that they would like to have a black marble tomb with the crest of Sir George Yeardley and the same inscription as upon the broken tomb. We believe that might reference this stone,” Basset tells WY Daily and suggests that if a crest were preserved on the tombstone then archaeologists wouldn’t have any difficulties identifying the grave’s owner.
Mary Anna Hartley, Preservation Virginia Field Supervisor, appears to share the same views with Basset, “Not having the monumental brasses is a real issue,” she told WY Daily, but she believes that the owner is no other than Yeardley and soon they will have more evidence in their hands to prove it, “I’m very optimistic one way or the other who it belonged to, because of how well intact the church has been. We have a real chance here to solve one of our Jamestown mysteries.”
Sir George Yeardley
Sir George Yeardley was knighted by King James I for his role as Governor of the British Colony of Virginia and Jamestown. He was a survivor of the Virginia Company of London's ill-fated Third Supply Mission, whose flagship, the Sea Venture, was shipwrecked on Bermuda for 10 months in 1609-10. He arrived in Jamestown in May, 1610, and in 1616 came to an agreement with the Chickahominy Indians that secured food and peace for two years.
Far from a knight in shining armor, Yeardley was one of the first Virginians to own African slaves, and was also involved in the exploitation of gold and silver mines. His preoccupation with tobacco interests, to the detriment of the colony’s defences, contributed to the decision for Native Americans to attack in 1622. Yeardley responded by demanding the seizure of their corn, then sold it to starving colonists, pocketing the money for himself.
Is George Yeardley the owner of the mysterious knight’s tomb?
Currently and as conservation of the tombstone continues, Preservation Virginia is determining how to display the tombstone and interpret Yeardley’s legacy to the public.
Top image: The Knight’s Tombstone in Jamestown. (Andrew Harris/WYDaily)
By Theodoros Karasavvas