Long-Buried Clues Depict a Virginia Colony's Life—and Death

updated 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/30/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Founded in 1619, Wolstenholme Towne was a bustling hamlet about seven miles from Williamsburg in colonial Virginia. On March 22, 1622 Indians massacred at least 58 of the 140 settlers and burned most of their log buildings. During the next 350 years lush vegetation buried Wolstenholme beneath forest humus.

Nearby, a plantation named Carter's Grove sprang up. The old village was forgotten—until 1970, when Ivor Noël-Hume, director of archeology for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, chanced upon what turned out to be the earliest remains of an extensive British colony yet discovered in America. "As in most great discoveries," Noël-Hume marvels, "we were not even looking for what we found."

He and his crew were after clues to 18th-century plantation life at Carter's Grove when they uncovered evidence 100 years older. They eventually hand-dug some 10 acres to a depth of 12 to 13 inches, despite poison ivy, snakes and what Noël-Hume calls "the damn deer flies." The work was grueling—two days exhuming a trash pit here, pacing with a dowsing rod for buried metal there—but the results were spectacular. Among the thousands of artifacts Noël-Hume and his staff found were a ceramic still, fine pottery, armor, the first complete visored helmets found in English colonies and, etched in the subsoil, an outline of the village itself.

All such evidence, Noël-Hume explains, is a "Rosetta stone" for understanding how the settlers adapted—helmets, for example, were soon perceived as burdens since they limited vision and hearing in the brush.

Noël-Hume, 51, who had a boyhood interest in Egyptology, first wanted to work in the theater and, when he was mustered out of the army in 1945, began to direct, write and even signed on as a stagehand. Between jobs, however, he strolled the banks of the Thames, and there came upon a trove of relics. His career in archeology was launched. "I found everything from Roman coins to incendiary bombs," he says. He took so many items to the Guildhall Museum, the director asked his help on archeological work in the reconstruction of war-damaged London. "I agreed I would," Noël-Hume recalls, "until something better came along. I was sure my big break in the theater was going to occur at any moment." A month later the director fell sick and Noël-Hume, 22 and with no formal archeology training, took over: "I had to either sink or swim. Fortunately I was able to swim."

At about that time he met and married Audrey Baines, an archeology graduate student volunteer at the museum. Noël-Hume's study of old wine bottles as an index to dating ruins took him to Williamsburg as a consultant, and in 1964 he became director of archeology. Audrey now correlates the results of her husband's digs with historical documents. After hours she gardens at home and Noël-Hume writes, 12 volumes of nonfiction so far, plus two archeology-oriented novels, published pseudonymously. "When I want to use a four-letter word," he explains, "it's safer under another name."

Divers are now probing the silty bottom of the James River, where Noël-Hume and his assistant Eric Klingelhofer believe Wolstenholme Towne once extended. "I still get excited finding artifacts," Noël-Hume says. "Any archeologist who says he doesn't is either lying or has no soul."

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