Search for US founding father's DNA

A MAJOR scientific search for the DNA of the man who founded the first English speaking colony in America has begun in two Suffolk churches.In 1607, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold established the Jamestown settlement in what is now Virginia, but died just a few months later.

A MAJOR scientific search for the DNA of the man who founded the first English speaking colony in America has begun in two Suffolk churches.

In 1607, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold established the Jamestown settlement in what is now Virginia, but died just a few months later.

Overlooked as one of the country's founders, Gosnold was the principal promoter, vice-admiral and one of the most influential leaders of the Jamestown colony, which eventually gave birth to the development of the United States.

The Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation Virginia) is now attempting to prove the remains of a 17th Century sea captain excavated at the James Fort site in Virginia were that of Gosnold.


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To do so, it is seeking to archaeologically obtain DNA bone samples from two of Gosnold's maternal relatives in Suffolk. The bid is being backed financially by the National Geographic Society.

Extensive genealogical research has identified Elizabeth Gosnold Tilney, Gosnold's sister, who is buried in the chancel of Shelley All Saints Church and Katherine Blackerby, Gosnold's niece, who, it is believed, is buried at St Peter and St Mary Church, Stowmarket.

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The first stage of the scientific investigation was a ground radar survey at the two proposed excavation sites yesterday

It was undertaken at the chancel of St Peter and St Mary Church where a tombstone bears the name of Katherine Blackerby's husband.

But, over the hundreds of years that have passed since the burial the tombstone could have been moved away from the grave, particularly in Victorian times when churches were frequently re-designed.

It is hoped the radar will show the existence of different matter, indicating a tomb or vault under the stone, and will also show an entry point. They could also use a camera to look under the stone, so they have a clear picture of what they will find before the excavation starts.

Archaeologists are hoping they will discover a lead coffin with an inscription, as was frequently used in the burials of reputable and wealthy people. If they find a family tomb, an osteo-archaeologist would have to analyse the bones to determine the age and sex of the skeleton and identify it before the DNA is taken.

Edward Martin, an archaeologist with Suffolk's archaeological service, helped track the genealogy of Gosnold using evidence, such as wills and burial records.

He said: “What we were trying to do is find relations in the female line, which would have the DNA link, such as his mother and sisters. We were seeing how far we could track them.

“The first attempt was to find someone living. But the female lines died out or disappear so what we have ended up with is two people in terms of burials.

“These are the ones we can find and we are reasonably confident that they are buried in a small area, which is why we are doing the radar to pick up an actual vault. The idea is not to disturb things more than we have to.”

He added: “It maybe seen as a small part in a bigger story but when you think about it, it is the start of Jamestown settlement and the United States. It could say 'America starts here'.”

Archaeologist Stuart Boulter, the exploration's team leader, said it was the first time the DNA technique had been used on a buried relative for this end.

Mr Boulter said: “In an ideal world we would get results from both graves at Shelley and here as that's the way we can be certain.

“If the DNA from the woman here and the one in Shelley match and it also matches Gosnold in America we will know we have got the right one.”

The church in Shelley is not likely to have a tomb so excavation could be more difficult.

If the results of the ground radar survey are positive, then the final decision to approve the exploration will be taken by the end of March.

This will involve consultation with the Parochial Church Council at both sites and the Council for the Care of Churches. The Diocese will have to issue two faculties granting permission and it must have the approval of the Chancellor of the Diocese as well as the Home Office.

At any point the excavation could be halted if the DNA samples cannot be obtained unless the entire contents of the graves are exhumed, other remains are disturbed, or the fabric of the two churches is damaged.

Archaeologists from Suffolk County Council could begin work in late spring to early summer to expose the bones and take a DNA sample, in the form of a tooth or a five centimetre-squared piece of bone from the pelvis.

James Halsall, project spokesman for the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, stressed there were a number of legal and other hurdles that must be crossed before the work started but said yesterday was a “good beginning”.

“It is 21st Century techniques chasing 17th Century people. Ten to 15 years ago it would not be possible,” he added.

Dr Joe Elders, archaeologist with the Council for the Care of Churches, said there had only ever been three applications of this kind submitted and, if this bid given the go-ahead, it would be the first.

Michael Eden, vicar of the St Peter and St Mary Church, said: “I have only been in Suffolk for a couple of years and I did not know there was a link with the New World so I am learning quite a lot myself as events unfold.

“We will have to see what results are that turn up. We do have a responsibility of care to those who have been buried in the church.”

William Kelso, APVA director of Archaeology, said: “Based on the archaeological evidence and forensic analysis, we are confident that the remains excavated at Jamestown are those of Bartholomew Gosnold.

“If we can find matching DNA, we will have done everything possible to confirm the identity of this great man and raise awareness about his contribution to the founding of the United States.”

If DNA samples can be obtained, the result of comparative tests will be revealed in a television documentary produced by National Geographic Television and Film expected to be transmitted in November.

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