Press Release

NASA Langley Helps Uncover More History at Historic Jamestown

By SpaceRef Editor
June 9, 2009
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JAMESTOWN, VA. – NASA researchers are helping archaeologists at Historic Jamestowne learn more about North America’s first settlers.

Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists have discovered a piece of slate in an abandoned well that was filled by 1611. The tablet is covered with sketches of New World birds, flowers, a tree and caricatures of men along with letters and numbers. The experts speculate the artwork and writing probably began in England then continued after the piece travelled from England to Jamestown.

“One of the major purposes of the archaeological project has been to learn what it was like to be at early Jamestown,” said Historic Jamestowne Director of Archaeology, Dr. William M. Kelso. “To me this single artifact, with its crude drawings of birds and flora, offers dramatic evidence of how captivated the Englishmen were by the natural wonders of the alien New World.”

NASA’s Langley Research Center has scanned dozens of artifacts for Preservation Virginia, the organization behind the Jamestown Rediscovery project, since excavation began 15 years ago. But this is the first time technicians used a new, more sophisticated “micro-focus computed tomography x-ray system,” called the X-Tek HMX-ST 225.

“It’s a three-dimensional imaging system that allows us to see inside materials without having to take them apart,” said Ray Parker, nondestructive evaluation sciences researcher. “It’s like a hospital CT scanner, only higher precision. We normally use it to inspect materials for aerospace use, like pieces of the shuttle or composites for hypersonic vehicles.”

The eight-foot long, four-foot wide, six-foot high machine uses X-rays and computer processing to create a 3-D “picture” of whatever it scans. In this case archaeologists are trying to determine what’s written on the slate tablet they found. “There’s a deposit of rust on the tablet and it’s covering up lettering and drawings,” said Parker. “We’re looking at the results of our scans to see if we can see what’s there.”

Curators say NASA’s use of the most advanced technology available should be able to help isolate the layers of inscriptions from the worn and scratched surface of the slate. Then along with other techniques they hope to identify the types of plants and birds the 17th century artist was drawing and perhaps where the artist saw them – Bermuda, West Indies or Virginia.

The former well where the tablet was uncovered is located in the center of the 1607 James Fort. Archaeologists digging in the vicinity last fall discovered a 14-foot-square area that contained layers of soil rich with 17th century artifacts. Excavations will continue this summer and visitors can watch for themselves as history is revealed at Historic Jamestowne.

NASA Langley started working with Preservation Virginia more than seven years ago helping to identify artifacts. That role expanded when NASA teamed with Jamestown 2007 to promote the spirit of exploration “then, now and in the future.” During the 18-month long celebration to honor the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, NASA even flew a small lead cargo tag, bearing the words “Yames Towne” and some commemorative mementoes on board the space shuttle Atlantis in 2007 to commemorate the nation’s pioneering spirit.

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SpaceRef staff editor.