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Archaeological dig reveals details of ‘first capital of Bermuda’

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Michael Jarvis of the University of Rochester, centre, with an archaeological team excavating the site of a centuries-old settlement on Smith's Island (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

The remnants of what is believed to be centuries-old town dubbed “the first capital of Bermuda” by archaeologists is slowly coming to light after more than 400 years.

The site on Smith’s Island in St George’s Harbour has been painstakingly unearthed this summer by a team of archaeology students from the University of Rochester in New York, led by professor Michael Jarvis.

Dr Jarvis said the team had a “compelling argument” that the site, spotted back in April when ground penetrating radar was brought to the island, is Bermuda’s first town of 410 years ago.

British settlers on their way to England’s Jamestown colony in Virginia stumbled on Bermuda in 1609 when their ship, the Sea Venture, got separated from its fleet in a hurricane and wrecked off the then uninhabited island.

The group managed to build two new ships and continue on to Virginia in 1610, leaving three settlers alone on Bermuda, on Smith’s Island, with the ship’s dog for company.

But on July 11, 1612 the island’s permanent settlement began with the arrival of a ship from England, the Plough.

On board were about 60 settlers along with the first Governor of Bermuda, Richard Moore – who started building a settlement on Smith’s Island before switching to the better location of St George’s.

“They landed here and Governor Moore built this first town here,” Dr Jarvis said.

“We think we might have found their site. For a couple of months, this was Moore’s town, the capital of Bermuda.

“They would have only lived here for a couple of months and then abandoned the site.

“There’s a lot of evidence of building but not a lot of things in the ground such as broken pottery.”

Michael Jarvis of the University of Rochester stands at the site of a house on Smith's Island from more than 400 years ago (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

Dr Jarvis helped with the radar scanning, a first for Bermuda, with David Givens, director at Jamestown Rediscovery in Virginia and Peter Leach of Geophysical Survey Systems in New Hampshire.

The area, close to an inlet called Small Pox Bay, looked promising as a potential site for a settlement.

“When I went into the woods and noticed how flat this area was, that got me thinking,” Dr Jarvis said.

Once it was scanned, and then as excavations began, “we started finding these post holes – these round features cut into the bedrock – and we found a lot of them”.

“It looks like an early 17th century presence. I said, we may have a town here.”

An archaeology student from the University of Rochester slowly unearths traces of a 17th century settlement on Smith's Island (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

Covering 60 acres, Smith’s Island off St David’s has some private property as well as substantial areas owned by the Bermuda National Trust and the Government, leaving much of the island as wooded open space.

The island has been used for whaling, quarantining for smallpox and yellow fever, and farming in recent decades.

A stone ruin alongside the flat area believed to be Moore’s town has yielded military evidence from the 19th century.

The original Sea Venture party left behind three men on Smith’s Island: Christopher Carter, Edward Waters and Edward Chard.

A partially subterranean site dug into the hillside north of the town is believed to be the house where the three stayed prior to the arrival of the Plough – although the area got disturbed later, making it difficult for archaeologists to establish its origins.

An archaeology team from the University of Rochester uncovers the traces of what would have been Bermuda's first capital, dating to 1612, on Smith's Island (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

The latest dig has focused on an area cleared of trees ahead of the radar survey, where it appears Governor Moore and the party of settlers initially planned to put a town.

“They didn’t know they were going to abandon it, so they were building for keeps,” Dr Jarvis said.

Uncovering the traces of the town and its artefacts has been carried out since July 4 by a team of students from the University of Rochester, assisted by Bermudian volunteers as well as a group from the University of Southampton in England, who have accommodation at the camp site on nearby Paget Island.

The Smith’s Island project, assisted by the Bermuda National Trust, the St George's Foundation, Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, and the Bermuda Government, has continued since 2010, and a detailed account of the work can be read online on Dr Jarvis’s blog.

Smith’s Island, with St David’s to the south and Paget Island with Fort Cunningham visible to the north. The site believed to be Governor Moore’s town lies to the east of the heavily wooded island.

The soil, removed with trowels and sifted for relics, will ultimately get replaced to preserve the site.

So far, Dr Jarvis said, the dirt in the post holes and other features of the site was “a time capsule” of scraps from 1612, although items are scarce since the town was short-lived.

Dr Jarvis added that would-be treasure hunters should avoid disturbing the dig: artefacts are mundane, mainly pieces of bone, tobacco pipes and shards of pottery, and the site predates the introduction of the early copper coins known as Hog Money.

During a visit by The Royal Gazette, a member of the team panning through the dirt uncovered a rat’s tooth.

But everything uncovered so far bears out the team’s belief that the shallow soil covers the location of a discarded settlement.

“We’ve only found early 17th century material,” Dr Jarvis said. “We’re pretty consistent.”

After a couple of months on Smith’s Island, Governor Moore and the settlers relocated to St George’s, then called Tortus island, where it was also easier to collect fresh water.

Establishing the Smith’s Island site as Bermuda’s first town will require outside help: Mr Givens, director of archaeology at Jamestown, is to travel to the island later this summer to evaluate it.

Confirming it as Governor Moore’s town will boost the project’s chances of securing more funding through grants to continue exploring Smith’s Island.

“The argument that this is the location of the site is really strengthened as we excavate,” Dr Jarvis said.

“The first week in August is when we hold our breath and hope we got it right.

“If we find stuff from the 19th century at the bottom of one of these post holes, that will be sad for us – but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

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Published July 30, 2022 at 7:56 am (Updated July 30, 2022 at 8:07 am)

Archaeological dig reveals details of ‘first capital of Bermuda’

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