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Jamestown Excavation Unearths Four Bodies and a Possible Catholic Reliquary

John Burger - published on 07/30/15

Could a small silver box have a Marian connection?
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Could a mysterious box unearthed in historic Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America, point to a Catholic connection with the foundations of the United States of America?

While Spanish and Portuguese exploration, settlement and conquest of the more Southern parts of the New World—and French activity in the Northcertainly had overt Catholic connections, the English and Dutch who settled mid-America were predominantly Protestant.

So why would the grave of one of the leaders of the Jamestown colony contain what appears to be a reliquary?

The Smithsonian Institution and a group called Jamestown Rediscovery announced Tuesday they had found four bodies buried in the settlement’s church, including that of the Rev. Robert Hunt, who was about 39 and was the first Anglican minister in the country.

It’s the same church, by the way, where the Indian princess Pocahontas married Englishman John Rolfe.

Jamestown was established in 1607 but suffered attacks from the local Powhatan and eventually was plagued by famine. Some historians believe residents were driven by starvation to the point where they began to practice cannibalism.

The location of the four newly-discovered graves inside the heart of the community’s church indicates that the deceased were esteemed members of the community.

“It would have been only the prominent who were buried there,” James Horn, president of Jamestown Rediscovery, which made the find, told the Washington Post“What we’re learning about are four of the first founders of English America.”

One of the four was Capt. Gabriel Archer, a lawyer and scribe. What intrigues researchers is that his grave contained a small hexagonal box etched with an “M.” The salt-shaker-sized box holds seven fragments of bone and parts of a small lead vial that may have held holy water, blessed oil or the blood of a saint. The bone fragments, about the length of a toothpick, appear to be human, said Kari Bruwelheide, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian.

Horn said he believed the box was a sacred, public reliquary, as opposed to a private item, because it contained so many pieces of bone.

But aren’t reliquaries Catholic? Archer was not known to be a Catholic, the article says, but his parents in England had been “recusants,” Catholics who refused to attend the Protestant Anglican Church, as required by law after the Reformation.

So was Archer a leader of a secret Catholic cell, Horn wondered?

In 1607, George Kendall, a member of the settlement’s governing council, was executed as a Catholic spy, according to Jamestown Rediscovery.

In its report on the discovery, The Atlantic goes so far as to say researchers may have just discovered proof of an underground community of Catholics—including Archer and perhaps the person who buried him with the relic—who pretended to be Protestants.

In fact, the presence of a reliquary might not have been so surprising. Such devotionals continued to be used in the Anglican Church in the early years of the Reformation, and this item would have been highly valued by Jamestown’s parish church. Burying it with Archer may have been a last desperate act to save it from desecration by natives.

But researchers are also puzzling over the meaning of the letter M etched into the box. Archer’s mother’s name was Mary, and he came from a town called Mountnessing, outside London.

The box has not been opened. CT scans have revealed its contents, and experts believe the box was made of non-English silver, originating in continental Europe many decades before it reached Jamestown.

For Catholics, of course, the letter M refers to the Mother of God. The fact that the silver box apparently had come from continental Europe many years earlier and the question about whether Archer was a secret Catholic may suggest to some a Marian connection.

The Atlantic muses about whether Archer was more than he appeared to be:

… there are other hints that suggest Archer was indeed a Catholic, and possibly even an important figure to other Catholics. He was buried in a hexagonal wooden coffin with his head pointing east. “Because of the orientation of archer in the grave, his head to the east, this is usually a sign of clerics,” Horn said. “He could have been the leader of a secret Catholic cell and even possibly a secret Catholic priest.”

Then there are the other Catholic objects, fragments found over the years at Jamestown that are taking on new meaning after the most recent discovery. “We have been finding bits and pieces of rosaries and crucifixes and other things that obviously were Catholic,” [

head archaeologist William M.] 
Kelso said. “One interpretation is they were bought over here to give to the Indians, even just to trade as trinkets. But now I think about it in a whole different way.”

Kelso said that for now the bones will be kept in a vault at the Jamestown complex, where they can be available for future study. He told the Washington Post that there are plans to build a memorial garden and mausoleum to hold all the remains recovered at Jamestown over the years. The reliquary will go on periodic display, he said, and there are no plans to open it “It would likely damage the box,” he said. “And while I am far from a staunchly religious person . . . it seems to me that keeping it closed is somehow the right, respectful thing to do.”

Said Horn, “More research, more work” is required. “Frankly, we need more help with interpreting this.”

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