click to enlarge
What to Expect
A sleek new orientation center. Its exterior of natural materials and hues gives it an appearance of a well-designed modern barn. Inside, blond wood paneling on lobby walls has a calming effect. There are a few benches. Jamestown Island is a highly contemplative place and has been treated gently in how it's been offered up to visitors.
Visitors are directed to an indoor amphitheater with a 360-degree seating arrangement. Here, watch a 15-minute orientation film on two curved, facing screens. The program's stylish illustrations are vaguely animated and the film also incorporates sharp photos of the lush, surrounding landscape. The approach is impressionistic in how it tells the story of settlement. It's a tale of starvation and of conflict between the natives and English.
The theater opens into a small, elegantly appointed gallery space that uses artifacts and information panels to reinforce the messages that the audiovisual introduced: "Jamestown's notable legacies include the introduction of representative government, English culture and heritage, and Protestant religion." It also makes clear that disease, starvation and conflicts with the native Powhatans meant that establishing those legacies was never a sure thing.
A pedestrian bridge takes visitors across a bog and over boisterous frogs to Jamestown Island, site of the old town.
A sublime calm permeates the island. The broad expanse of river forms a sweeping backdrop for two vertical elements: the 17th-century brick church tower (with its rebuilt sanctuary) and a grand, European-style obelisk of a monument that was erected in 1907 to mark the tercentenary of the English colony.
Throughout the island there are low-lying preserved ruins where buildings once stood. This is the American equivalent to stubby Roman remains.
In the middle of the island are recently rebuilt bulwarks of the old fort: Research and archaeological digs during the past decade ascertained the site of this enclosure where the colonists holed up for fear of being attacked by the natives.
The archaeology museum, which opened in May, is a starkly modernistic structure clad in copper. It appears to float over the foundation of the old statehouse. Visitors look through the floor to see the foundations of the building the first English representative legislature met and to examine a number of objects unearthed in recent digs. A park ranger says that only 25 percent of the site has been excavated.
After artifacts like ceramics, bones and personal items have been removed and cleaned up, most are brought here to the Archaearium, says volunteer Susan Allen, who lives in Hampton and says she's been coming to the site since she was a child.
When all the artifacts have been removed from a particular dig site within the barriers of the original Jamestown fort, Allen says, the sites are then lined with the same fabric that's used to line nuclear waste dumps, to ensure they are protected from the elements. Features like wells and building foundations are left in the ground. Visitors can see roped off areas where archaeologists are currently working. If you're there during the week, you can actually interact with them.
The most striking element of the Archaearium consists of a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that allows sweeping views back across the island and of the James River.
Stuff for Sale
It can't be an American tourist attraction without a bold merchandising effort, and Jamestown has several gift shops to explore. A replica of a sterling-silver ear-picker , presented as a pendant for $62, is most likely to start a conversation on historic hygiene.
I-64 East to exit 242A, Route 199. Follow 199 West for three miles to the second traffic light and turn right on South Henry Street for access to the Colonial Parkway, then follow signs to Historic Jamestowne. Or do what we did and cross the James River via the Jamestown-Scotland ferry.
Historic Jamestowne is open daily, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Visitors may stay on grounds until dusk. Admission is $10 ages 16 and older. (Separate admission ticket and transportation arrangements apply during America's Anniversary Weekend, May 11-13.) Shuttlebus service and wheelchairs available. (757) 229-1733.www.historicjamestowne.org.
Combination tickets include Yorktown Victory Center and battlefield and Colonial Williamsburg. (800) 494-8643. www.gowilliamsburg.com.Back to the cover story.