How Archaeologists Dug Up a Human-Shaped Coffin That Wasn't There

Researchers are using a combination of cutting-edge technologies to identify materials that have long since disintegrated.

Archaeologists work at the site of Jamestown burial excavations in November 2013. (Smithsonian Institution / Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation)

A team of archaeologists and historians announced on Tuesday that they’ve  identified the remains of four prominent men who died at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America, between 1608 and 1616—extraordinary news made even more intriguing by the discovery of a relic that suggests there were Catholics secretly living among the Protestants there.

But it wasn’t just what researchers found, but also how they went about finding it, that deserves attention. Piecing together a patchwork of evidence about daily life more than four centuries ago requires the right combination of technology, imagination, and luck.

“Five years ago, we wouldn't have been able to do it,” said William Kelso, the director of archaeology for the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. Kelso was referring to the sophistication of some of the technologies that researchers used—scanning the ancient Catholic relic they found, then reanimating it in digital 3D, for instance. But even the best tools require a certain creativity about how to reconstruct the past.

The most striking example of this, to me, was the way researchers figured out the shape of an unusual coffin buried at what was once the first church built at Jamestown. It once held the remains of Sir Ferdinando Wainman, an officer at Jamestown who was in charge of his colony’s artillery and horses. Researchers were able to determine that Wainman had been buried in a human-shaped coffin—even though wooden structure itself had long-since decomposed. “An anthropomorphic coffin, that's very rare,” Kelso told me. “It would have taken a real skilled cabinet-maker to make it.”

So how did researchers identify the shape of something that had already disappeared? They took images of an entire block of dirt using “really powerful CT scanning,” and, from those images, they were able to tell by the positioning of coffin nails—the only bits still in the dirt—what shape the wood that held those nails had once been.

“It’s science and art,” Kelso said. “That's what historical archaeology is. The thing that’s so interesting about this discovery is it blends so many disciplines together in order to identify these people. Documentary searches, asking different questions about the same documents, searches in museum collections, looking at the archaeological context in which these people were found, forensic studies of the skeletal remains. It involves high-tech, state-of-the-art studies, really on the cutting edge of science.”