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Thanks to the long shadow cast by Indiana Jones, and because many of its practitioners do range backward into the mists of prehistory, archaeology is often cast in the popular imagination as an arena of deepest antiquity. But this hybrid blend of art and science is not always the stuff of Rosetta stones and Norse runes. The past 300 to 500 years, during which all manner of human activity and artifact enjoyed detailed documentation by contemporary observers, still provide rich fields of mystery for archaeologists to sift, comparing and contrasting physical evidence from the past with the accounts of those present at its accumulation.
Dubbed “historical archaeology,” this hybrid of a hybrid attracts criticism from purists on either side of the family tree. Unalloyed historians and archaeologists often challenge the field’s speculative nature. However, historical archaeology offers a useful means of decoding the just-passed past, as Ivor Noël Hume demonstrates in The Virginia Adventure: Roanoke to James Towne—An Architectural and Historical Odyssey.
Along with explaining how his discipline functions, Hume peels away the bark of myth that has grown thickly around names like John Smith, Pocahontas, Powhatan, and Walter Raleigh. Employed for so long as stanchions of Virginia history, these figures have grown stiff and distant, but at Hume’s hand they breathe again, thanks to the author’s fluid writing style and liberal use of his subjects’ own lively words.
Along with solid research and artful speculation, Adventure boasts a clean and energetic narrative line. A Briton who earned a high profile for discoveries made in his homeland before coming to the U.S. to work at Williamsburg, Hume is neither simplifier nor snob. He writes to the high standard required to satisfy a fellow professional, but also constructs prose welcoming to the curious amateur. In the process, he cross-references, corroborates, and sometimes challenges the historical record.
In that regard, Adventure is an adventure. Hume opens with an account of his first visit to Jamestown in 1956, recalling the electric sense of time travel that enveloped him as he trespassed on a re-creation of James Fort being built for the 350th anniversary of the town’s founding. The original was presumed lost to time and tides, washed away by the encroaching river—a presumption that Hume, in the course of the legwork that formed the basis for his book, helped to disprove.
Adventure grinds a great mass of English and early American history through its sieve. Chronicling the English progression in Virginia from the ill-fated 1584-1590 settlement at Roanoke Island to the establishment of what eventually would be the colonial capital at “James Towne,” Hume ransacks the stacks for telling details. He is an engaging rambler, given to digressions whose meander inevitably advances the story while providing sideward glimpses into another time.
For example, Hume notes that England took to the sea not for purposes loftily imperial but for reasons pragmatically mercantile. Before Britannia ruled the waves, she mainly raised sheep, and her earliest explorations intended to find new markets for the trimmings. Interest in American gold, Far Eastern spices, and international dominion soon entered the mix, but at the start England just wanted to sell sweaters.
That goal soon was supplanted. Less than a century after Columbus, the race was on for control over the New World, and England was behind.
Not for long. Driven out of Europe and energized by the Reformation, England caught up through industry, cunning, and brash valor. Belatedly joining Spain, Portugal, and France as a player in the great game, she had to find ground where other nations had not trod, or at least where their toes were not well dug in.
Virginia’s shores provided that foothold. Spain had annexed much of the lower Atlantic coast of North America as part of Terra Florida, but had not sufficiently impressed its brand on that turf’s northern edge, with the result that English interlopers soon arrived. Crews supplying those settlers paid for their voyages by attacking galleons leaving Spanish and Portuguese ports in Latin and South America. Bringing home the gold and silver, privateers drove home the point of a powerful British fleet and the need for strong, close ties between homeland and colonies.
Virginia became a focus of those ties, and in Adventure, Hume explains how the upstart colony waxed and waned through several cycles of prosperity and poverty. Colonists fought with one another and against the region’s natives, who initially had been friendly but soon learned to give as good as they got from white men inclined to think them savages and treat them savagely. By the middle of the 17th century, shifts in population and changes in the shoreline had dotted the Virginia coast with puzzles like the fate of the settlement at Roanoke Island and the location of the first fort at Jamestown. As the years piled up, these brain teasers expanded, clouded by time and obscured by factors like the ease with which a tree root can supplant a rotted post, eliminating a key piece of evidence showing where a farm’s fence line or a fort’s exterior palisade stood.
In the service of untangling this knotted skein, Hume plows through colonial history, then jumps to this century, when the National Park Service acquired both the Roanoke Island and Jamestown locations and began excavating them—not necessarily with the lightest of touches. In 1934, after taking control of the Jamestown site—but before ascertaining the exact location of James Fort—the U.S. unleashed a crew of Civilian Conservation Corps shovelers. Though working under the supervision of trained archaeologists, the CCC lads did for the previously undisturbed surroundings what Heinrich Schliemann’s well-intentioned scrabblings did for the many layers of Troy.
In the end, however, the fort was found—thanks partly to Hume’s analytical skills—and a new team of arkies is poised to fillet the site. They propose to have results available by the time Jamestown’s 400th anniversary arrives in 2007. Even if they don’t meet that deadline, Old Dominion history buffs have The Virginia Adventure. Hume winningly demonstrates not only the syncretic nature of the forces that collide to make history, but the subtleties demanded of those who would unravel that history back to its earliest threads.