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Grave could answer 400-year-old question

PUBLISHED: 21:06 14 June 2005 | UPDATED: 05:56 02 March 2010

IT is a secret which could finally shed light on one of history's long-forgotten heroes.

It is a story which began 400 years ago and yesterday, in the full glare of the international media spotlight, the first steps were taken towards writing the final chapter of the dramatic tale.

IT is a secret which could finally shed light on one of history's long-forgotten heroes.

It is a story which began 400 years ago and yesterday, in the full glare of the international media spotlight, the first steps were taken towards writing the final chapter of the dramatic tale.

And, if everything goes to plan, history will show that one of the most important founding fathers of the USA was Captain Bartholomew Gosnold, an adventurous explorer from Suffolk.

He led an expedition to establish the first English-speaking colony in the New World and, in 1607, landed at Jamestown, in what is now known as Virginia.

But he died three months later and was largely forgotten in the history of the USA.

Now, American archaeologists hope to prove that remains found in a distinguished grave just outside the historic James Fort site in Jamestown in 2003 are indeed those of Gosnold.

They have travelled to All Saints Church in Shelley, a picturesque village near Hadleigh, to try to extract DNA from the bones of his sister, Elizabeth Gosnold Tillney.

Once secured, the DNA profile will be compared to that gathered from the unidentified American remains, in the hope that it will match.

Dr William Kelso, director of archaeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (APVA Preservation) said the work was the culmination of his 40-year dream.

He added: "If this is Gosnold, then we've found the lost-to-history burial of one of the most influential and moving spirits behind English-American colonisation, hence a founding father of modern America and one of that elite group of daring English mariners of the Age of Exploration."

Dr Kelso spoke as archaeologists began the painstaking task of uncovering Elizabeth Tillney's remains, which are thought to lie beneath the picture-postcard church.

Once unearthed and confirmed as Tillney's remains, scientists will take a sample of DNA from her femur bone and a tooth.

Dr Kelso added: "There were 1,000 people living in Virginia by the time the pilgrims jumped off the Mayflower but in America people have never heard of Gosnold.

"Origins are important and we would like to see his role recognised."

Edward Martin, an archaeology officer for Suffolk County Council who is leading the search for Tillney's bones, said they were unable to track down a living relative of Gosnold despite years of research – prompting the project at Shelley.

"The best hope is that the DNA will match, in which case we're absolutely certain that we've got Gosnold," he added. "Then it's jump for joy time.

Having taken up the floor the next stage is to lift off the grave slab, clear out the sand and then see if they can identify the grave.

Mr Martin said: "It's very exciting and very different – we've never had anything quite like this."

Nick Clarke, a spokesman for the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, said the excavation – never done before in the UK – was "an exciting and unique day for the Church of England".

After the work at Shelley is complete, a second excavation will begin at St Peter and St Mary church in Stowmarket to recover DNA from Katherine Blackerby, Gosnold's niece.

The results of the DNA comparisons will be revealed in a special documentary about Jamestown, to be screened on the National Geographic television channel later this year.


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