The Reliquary, and burials in the Jamestown church
Disease was the biggest killer, with bad food and water a major contributor. Accidents and injuries killed many more and finally there was the ever present danger of other humans. Indians killed quite a few colonists, and colonists killed each other. The winter of 1609 brought another killer - starvation.
The identity of the saint whose bones are in the reliquary is unknown. The only markings on the reliquary are a letter M and some symbols that do not match any known Catholic graffiti. One scholar (Christopher Allison) has made a case that the bones may be those of Cuthbert Mayne, a Catholic priest who was martyred in 1577.
|The actual reliquary next to a reproduction. The actual piece cannot be opened|
The reliquary's placement atop the casket may have been meant for the good of Archer's soul, or the benefits it would confer upon the altar above, or both. We cannot know what anyone was thinking as they stood at his grave but it seems likely that whoever placed it there had one of those purposes in mind. The most we can do is interpret the find in light of what's know of religious tradition and the times.
Some scholars ask how we know the reliquary belonged to Archer. The fact is, we don't. All we can say is that the reliquary was carefully placed atop the casket with an east-west orientation, and the dirt filled around it so as not to disturb that orientation. From that evidence, and the evidence of the reliquary itself we can say the object had great significance. It was probably Archer's, but we cannot be certain.
That leads to another question - what was a Catholic reliquary doing in the Virginia colony? The construction of this particular reliquary was fragile - a sliding door that could easily open and spill the contents. The reliquary was pocket sized, but too big to be carried like a locket. That suggests the reliquary had been stored in a protected place, and not carried. The most likely reason it was in Virginia was that it was carried there in hope of consecrating Catholic ground if and when the opportunity arose. The number of relics in the box suggest it came from a church, as opposed to the smaller or more ephemeral personal relics some Catholics maintained.
With that interpretation, it's tempting to jump to the conclusion that the reliquary is evidence Archer was a secret priest, since only an ordained member of the clergy could have consecrated a church. However, the Anglican church had similar rules about what lay people and clergy could do, and what required a bishop, and those rules were commonly ignored for practicality in the Virginia colony. Archer might just as well have been a devoted lay person who was entrusted to bring the relics and establish a church in Virginia. Many of the later Virginia churches would be established by lay vestries, who sought out ministers, contrary to the practice in England or Europe, where churches were established by the bishops.
Whoever carried the reliquary to Virginia was almost certainly a person of stature in the Catholic community they came from in England, to have had the object in the first place. They brought it here with a purpose, which may well have been accomplished when it was buried beneath the altar rail. However, the church was abandoned within a few years, and the reliquary remained untouched; buried for the next four centuries.
|A cross recovered from a Jamestown site circa 1609|
|The original church outline, as reconstructed by Jamestown Rediscovery|
|The chancel of the first church in relation to the later brick replacement.|
|The chancel burials, from Jamestown display|
|Jamestown archaeologist Merry Outlaw among some of the many objects they have conserved|
John Elder Robison
Thanks to Merry Outlaw, Jim Kelso, Jim Horn and the staff at Jamestown Rediscovery for graciously sharing their time, knowledge, and discoveries, and my William & Mary colleague Karin Wulf, head of the University's Omohundro Institute of Early American History, for making the connection.
John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and a visiting professor of practice at Bay Path University in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.