September 30, 1996 12:00 PM

IT WAS A DUBIOUS PLACE FOR A SETTLEMENT—a low, swampy peninsula in a salty tidal river—and it was nearly wiped out by famine, disease and Indian attacks. Yet from Jamestown, Va., the first permanent English settlement in America, sprang colonial Virginia and, ultimately, the United States. One reason the colony survived was a small, three-sided, wooden fort that Capt. John Smith—yes, the Pocahontas guy—had built in 1607. Now the fort’s remains, long believed washed away by the James River, have been found by a team of archaeologists. “We are at ground zero, the genesis of America,” exults William M. Kelso, who led the nine-person team that unearthed more than 100,000 artifacts—armor, coins, arrowheads and musket balls—from the fort. “I feel like I’m living in a dream world.”

Kelso says he never thought that the remains of the fort, which burned down in 1608, had been carried off by the river. On his first day of digging, in April 1994, Kelso, who has also excavated the slave quarters at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, found a shard of pottery similar to one recovered from Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, which sank off the coast of England in 1545. “I knew we were on to something,” he says. “We’ve been working very hard ever since.”

In addition to artifacts, the hard work has yielded a mystery: a skeleton in a wooden coffin. The identity of the dead man, who probably bled to death from the musket ball lodged in his right leg, is unknown; he may have participated in one of the mutinies against the autocratic Smith. “Because so many people were dying left and right,” says Kelso, he is intrigued that the man received a formal burial: “We are looking at the possibility that this was someone of fairly high status.”

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