Tomb DNA quest at Suffolk church

BURIED in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, hidden by a maze of winding roads and overgrown dirt tracks, lies a secret which could finally shed light on one of history's long-forgotten heroes.

BURIED in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, hidden by a maze of winding roads and overgrown dirt tracks, lies a secret which could finally shed light on one of history's long-forgotten heroes.

It is a story which began 400 years ago and yesterday, in the full glare of the international media spotlight, the first steps were taken towards writing the final chapter of the dramatic tale.

And, if everything goes to plan, history will show that one of the most important founding fathers of the USA was Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, an adventurous explorer from Suffolk.

He led an expedition to establish the first English-speaking colony in the New World and, in 1607, landed at Jamestown, in what is now known as Virginia.

But he died three months later and was largely forgotten in the history of the USA, while the legend of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, the Powhatan Indian princess who saved his life, lives on.

Now, American archaeologists hope to prove that remains found in a distinguished grave just outside the historic James Fort site in Jamestown in 2003 are indeed those of Gosnold.

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They have travelled to All Saints Church in Shelley, a picturesque village near Hadleigh, to try to extract DNA from the bones of his sister, Elizabeth Gosnold Tillney.

Once secured, the DNA profile will be compared to that gathered from the unidentified American remains, in the hope that it will match.

Dr William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation) said the work was the culmination of his 40-year dream.

He added: "If this is Gosnold, then we've found the lost-to-history burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonisation, hence a founding father of modern America and one of that elite group of daring English mariners of the Age of Exploration."

Dr Kelso spoke to the EADT as archaeologists began the painstaking task of uncovering Elizabeth Tillney's remains, which are thought to lie beneath the picture-postcard church.

Once unearthed and confirmed as Tillney's remains, scientists will take a sample of DNA from her femur bone and a tooth.

Dr Kelso added: "I'm ecstatic. To get permission to do something like this from a people who maybe ordinarily wouldn't allow this is a breakthrough.

"The English origins of the USA are minimalised. History's focus has been somewhat off the mark - Jamestown isn't even known, let alone Gosnold.

"There were 1,000 people living in Virginia by the time the pilgrims jumped off the Mayflower but in America people have never heard of Gosnold - yet he was the driving force behind the settlement at Jamestown.

"Origins are important and we would like to see his role recognised."

Of the American discovery, Dr Kelso added: "He was buried with a Captain's staff - we've studied hundreds of burials and you don't bury people with any artefacts really.

"The staff being laid on the coffin was very unusual. As soon as I saw that, I thought 'this is Gosnold'."

Edward Martin, an archaeology officer for Suffolk County Council who is leading the search for Tillney's bones, said they were unable to track down a living relative of Gosnold despite years of research - prompting the project at Shelley.

"The best hope is that the DNA will match, in which case we're absolutely certain that we've got Gosnold," he added. "Then it's jump for joy time.

"Elizabeth Gosnold asked to be buried by her husband so we're expecting to find two bodies - they could be side by side, or stacked one on top of the other.

"We need to expose them and identify her skeleton. This morning we've had masons here who are used in church work - they have taken up the floor bricks as the first stage of raising the grave slab.

"They have taken off the Victorian tiles because it was hidden, and we've had to move a pew as well.

"The next stage is to lift off the grave slab very carefully, clear out the sand and then see if we can identify the grave.

"It's very exciting and very different - we've never had anything quite like this. We're learning both about Gosnold and 17th Century America but also how they used to bury people in Suffolk at the time.

"It's very interesting."

Nick Clarke, a spokesman for the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, said the excavation - never done before in the UK - was "an exciting and unique day for the Church of England."

He added: "Our guidelines are that church graves will not be disturbed, except in exceptional circumstances.

"What makes this exceptional is the science behind the Jamestown proposition. This is not a rummage for bones - it's a small-scale tightly controlled scientific operation.

"It's a fabulously exciting day. We've got a world story happening in a small rural Suffolk church.

"No objections have been raised from the parish, and I think Elizabeth (Gosnold Tillney) would want to help her brother achieve the proper recognition as one of America's founding fathers."

After the work at Shelley is complete, a second excavation will begin at St Peter and St Mary church in Stowmarket to recover DNA from Katherine Blackerby, Gosnold's niece.

The results of the DNA comparisons will be revealed in a special documentary about Jamestown, to be screened on the National Geographic television channel later this year.

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