Spotlight on Research: A Summer Sifting Dirt Leads Mason Student to Major Archaeological Discovery

Posted: September 23, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Colleen Kearney Rich

While many sophomores are still wondering if they’ve chosen the correct degree program, anthropology student Landon Yarrington is making a major contribution to his chosen field of study. In July, Yarrington was credited with one of the largest archaeological finds to date in historic Jamestown, Va.—a wine cellar with 10 intact bottles.

Landon Yarrington
Landon Yarrington
Photo by Evan Cantwell

According to officials at Jamestown Rediscovery, in the 10 years that archaeologists have been excavating there, they have only found two intact ceramic vessels in the more than a half million artifacts recovered so far. So the 320-year-old wine bottles are a major discovery—leading Yarrington and the antique bottles to be featured in a number of media outlets throughout Virginia and the country, including Wine Spectator magazine.

“It’s been pretty amazing,” says Yarrington, who at age 19 was the youngest participant at the Jamestown Rediscovery field school. “They call Jamestown the land of milk and honey because anywhere you land your shovel you are going to uncover something.” Still, Yarrington’s discovery exceeded even his expectations.

Each year the six-week field school, sponsored jointly by the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) and the University of Virginia, brings together 18 students from around the nation to Jamestown for hands-on experience.

Yarrington found out about the opportunity by talking to an archaeologist over his winter break and approached his teachers at Mason for the required recommendations when he returned for spring semester.

“Landon came to me early in his freshman year with plans to become an archaeologist, and I was impressed with his enthusiasm,” says James Snead, assistant professor of anthropology, who recommended Yarrington for the field school. “It’s great to see him get credit for discovering the wine bottles, since finds like this don’t come along very often.”

“This is one of the earliest wine cellars discovered in America,” says William Kelso, director of archaeology for APVA. Jamestown Rediscovery sources believe the 10 onion-shaped glass bottles were made in England between 1680 and 1700.

“One of the bottles is embossed with the initials FN,” says Yarrington. FN may be the seal of Francis Nicholson, who was governor of Virginia from 1698 to 1705. “It may be his wine cellar. Or he could’ve brought the wine bottle to a dinner and given it as a gift. We were obviously digging in an area where affluent people lived.”

It was Nicholson who moved the capital of Virginia to Williamsburg in 1699 after the last Jamestown statehouse burned in 1698. After the move, Jamestown was gradually abandoned, fell into ruin, and eventually became an agricultural area.

None of the bottles had corks or liquid residue in them, leading researchers to believe that they may have been empty when stored in the cellar. It was not uncommon during this period for people to keep private bottles, which they would take to an importer and have filled with wine from a cask. Broken pieces of a pewter spoon, a bone-handled knife, several clay pipes, and an English delftware chamber pot were also found in the cellar.

The wine bottles will be on exhibit in the Dale House exhibit area in Historic Jamestown, where they are gearing up for the 400th anniversary celebration in 2007. According to APVA sources, the cellar will eventually be refilled with dirt to preserve the site.

Yarrington says he has known he wanted to be an archaeologist since ninth grade when he studied ancient Greece, and his enthusiasm for his chosen field of study is unbridled. He was quoted by one of the many journalists who interviewed him after the find as saying, “Every day is like Christmas morning here.”

After the field school, Yarrington, who lives in nearby Yorktown, stayed on at the Jamestown site to complete an internship with APVA. When asked via e-mail what else he would be doing as part of that internship, Yarrington’s response was fairly succinct:

“Every day is a digging day :-D.”

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