The Archaearium – Williamsburg, Virginia - Atlas Obscura

Williamsburg, Virginia

The Archaearium

This museum for people who really dig colonial American history holds an unsavory secret. 

The lore of John Smith, John Rolfe, and Pocahontas is well known, but the Archaearium is dedicated to telling the truth of the original Jamestowne settlement to the extent historians and archaeologists can piece it together. Among the ruins that were once thought lost to the James River (but were actually hidden by a Confederate redoubt) are numerous unexpected stories about daily life in the first permanent English colony.

Most United States school-age children are familiar with the story of Jamestown’s founding in 1607, and the swashbuckling exploits of Captain John Smith. Nearly executed for mutiny early in the expedition, Smith survived to lead the hapless colonists and fortune seekers in building a successful venture for the Virginia Company.

But the initial struggle was staggeringly bleak. At one point, Smith’s famously harsh organizational rules were encapsulated in the simple biblical dictum, “He that will not work, shall not eat.” This decree did not prevent scores of colonists from dying of starvation, and the irony of its sentiment would not be discovered until 2012.

Only 38 of the original settlers survived the first year, and more settlers were dispatched in 1608, including the first women. Of course, it is a non-European woman, Pocahontas, who takes center stage in the story of Jamestown’s survival, since it is she who is often credited with foiling the plan of Native American leader Powhatan to starve the settlers out of Virginia. But it was another woman, known only by the nom de guerre of Jane, who made the greatest possible sacrifice during Jamestown’s Starving Time.

In 2012, archaeologists found Jane’s skeleton in a trash pit together with the discarded skeletons of various animals. After an extensive examination by Douglas Owsley, chief forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, the mutilated condition of her bones conclusively proved that settlers resorted to cannibalism to survive. (Disney conveniently left out cannibalism speculation from its movie.)

The Archaearium presents Jane’s story in detail, along with discoveries made from surveys of the burial ground, which has yielded extensive information about the disease, nutrition, ancestry, and customs of the early settlers. While the museum contains tens of thousands of objects, they are organized effectively to tell a compelling human story of courage, ingenuity, endurance, and depravity.

Historians have long debated many details surrounding Jamestown’s founding since Smith’s written account is famously unreliable as self-aggrandizing propaganda. But as archaeologists proceed with settlement excavations, their understanding of U.S. history continues to become more accurate. “Archaearium” itself means “a place of beginnings,” and the stories told in its exhibits continue to expand and intensify the knowledge of colonial America’s origins. 

Know Before You Go

The Archaearium is located at Historic Jamestowne, which is managed in cooperation with the National Park Service, and should not be confused with Jamestown Settlement, an independent living history museum.

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