|TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY TECHNOLOGY APPLIED TO 17th
NASA helps unravel early colonial mystery
The Agency that is generally focused upward is helping
archeologists identify findings from deep within a 17th century
well at Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the
NASA Langley high-tech X-ray equipment gave conservators from
the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA)
a peek inside rusted masses of concreted material pulled out of the
14-foot-deep well that may date between 1609 and 1620.
Charles H. Greenhalgh, Jr., NASA senior quality assurance
specialist working in nondestructive evaluation (NDE), produced the
X-rays. On a typical day, Greenhalgh interprets radiographic film
of Langley's high-pressure air systems using established codes,
standards and specification. He performs inspections on items
ranging from wind tunnel fan blades to developmental composite
fabrications that may be used on future aircraft. Greenhalgh
employed this expertise to help solve the mystery of what was
encased in the 400-year-old clumps.
"Whats really there is often so much different from what
the mass looks like, that its easy to make the wrong guess,"
said Greenhalgh. The first clump of brick, clay and rusted iron
X-rayed was thought to be a small cannon, known as a "murderer."
Two sets of X-rays later, each peering a little deeper, revealed a
wrought iron funnel-shaped object, that might be the nozzle to a
The advantage of NASAs high-powered NDE machine is that it
reveals the density of the object, not just the shape. This allows
conservators to better identify the object, determine the condition
of the artifact, decide if it is worth conserving and select what
type of treatment to apply electrolysis or air abrasion.
"We are pleased to be able to share with the APVA the resources
that NASA and Langley offer the nation to ensure that America
maintains it aerospace leadership," said
S. Stewart Harris, Jr., deputy director for Fabrication
Technology in Langley's Systems Engineering Competency.
Elizabeth S. Kosteiny, APVA executive director, said, "We are
grateful for NASAs high-tech assistance with the Jamestown
Rediscovery archaeological project. These artifacts are truly
remarkable discoveries, and NASAs ability to help identify
and analyze them is an invaluable resource that will help us learn
more about the first settlers at Americas birthplace."
About 50 items were X-rayed, including tools, a gun barrel, and
several pieces of body armor.
Probably the most exciting item identified was a matchlock, a
type of firearm. A popular and inexpensive weapon, a matchlock was
ignited by a burning matchcord that was mechanically lowered, by
pulling the trigger, into the pan. However, the soldier had to keep
the match burning constantly so that he would have a ready source
of flame to fire the weapon. A major drawback, the flame made the
soldier a visible target at night, was difficult to keep lighted in
inclement weather, and produced a pungent odor that would alert the
"Items found at the bottom of the well were probably dropped or
thrown into it during the time that it was in use," said APVA
conservator Michael Lavin. "We are finding items that are well
preserved because they were immersed in the wet environment."
Items from the well and about 450,000 other artifacts
excavated since the Jamestown Rediscovery project at the site of
James Fort began in 1994 -- are helping archeologists learn more
about early colonial times. Through these finds APVA researchers
hope to understand more about the design and strategic military
positioning of James Fort, attempts at trade and industry,
relationships with the Virginia Indians, how the settlers adapted
to their new environment, as well as how they lived and died.
Finding and identifying the objects, though, is just the
beginning of the conservation process. The items x-rayed at
NASAs Langley Research Center in one day may take a
years work before they can be displayed in Jamestown.