Issue Date: November 12, 2007
Most U.S. schoolchildren are taught that Jamestown, Va., is the site of the first permanent settlement of English-speaking people in North America. They hear stories of Capt. John Smith's rescue by Indian princess Pocahontas and the trials of the terrible winter of 1609-10.
Soon, they also may learn that recent archaeological findings suggest Jamestown is the birthplace of the North American chemical enterprise.
To celebrate these new findings, the American Chemical Society recently designated Jamestown as the 60th National Historic Chemical Landmark. The simple ceremony, held on the banks of the James River on a crisp October morning, came during the 400th anniversary of Jamestown's founding.
Festivities on Oct. 10 started a little bit later than planned, but nobody seemed to mind. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry had just been announced, and ACS President-Elect Bruce E. Bursten was on his cell phone fielding questions from reporters on deadline seeking comments from ACS officials.
After the flurry of phone calls had slowed, Bursten gave a brief talk and presented a commemorative plaque to Ann Berry, administrator of the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA) Preservation Virginia's Historic Jamestowne site.
Bursten told the roughly 75 attendees that all ACS National Historic Chemical Landmarks must satisfy three criteria: "They must represent seminal achievements; the achievements must evidence a significant impact on and benefit to society; and the achievements must have occurred at least 25 years ago," he said.
Jamestown satisfies all three. "Carving out a settlement in the wilderness is an achievement in itself," Bursten said. "Beginning chemical practices immediately upon doing so raises that achievement to a whole other level. That the achievement is more than 25 years old is obvious."
Bill Kelso, APVA Preservation Virginia's director of archaeology in Jamestown, told attendees that excavations at the Jamestown Fort have revealed the presence of chemical tools and apparatuses used to detect, identify, and process natural resources for commercial uses.
According to the landmark's brochure (available online at www.acs.org/landmarks), "crucibles, cupels, scorifiers, alembics, slag, and melted metal indicate that a host of metals and minerals were processed, refined, and tested at Jamestown during the colony's earliest years. Among Jamestown's metalworking remains, archaeologists have found evidence for copper-based metallurgy. Numerous triangular and beaker-shaped crucibles have been excavated and several samples contain copper residue."
"It was not abstract scientific experimentation, but rather scientific enterprise targeted at more practical goals," Bursten said. "In particular, the German, Polish, Swiss, and English settlers sought to apply European technologies to indigenous raw materials in metallurgy, pharmacology, and perfumery. Many of the early chemical practitioners were artisans, such as those skilled in glass manufacture."
Whether the history texts for children will be revised to include this first for Jamestown remains to be seen, but archaeology is changing our understanding of the earliest colonists and their work in Virginia.
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