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How a VCU-based collaboration is reshaping our view of early Jamestown

Medical researchers and archaeologists are studying the skull and teeth of a 15-year-old boy who died in 1607

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Researchers—using energy dispersive X-Ray spectroscopy chemical analysis—examine particulate recovered from Jamestown Boy's lower left incisor at the Nanomaterials Core Characterization Facility at the VCU School of Engineering.

The term “oral history” conjures images of man’s first attempts to learn from the past. Now an interdisciplinary team of researchers working in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is giving those words new meaning.

School of Engineering postdoctoral fellow D. Joshua Cohen, M.D., and a team of medical researchers, as well as archaeologists from Jamestown Rediscovery at Historic Jamestowne, are studying the skull and teeth of a 15-year-old boy who died in Jamestown in 1607. They believe material recovered from the boy’s dental structures may yield clues about diet and other aspects of daily life in 17th-century Jamestown.

The Nanomaterials Characterization Core, a research core facility of the VCU Office of Research in the Institute for Engineering and Medicine, is assisting the effort. The NCC is also a partnership between the VCU School of Engineering and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences. The samples were prepared in a clean environment that was provided by Wright Virginia Microelectronics Center at School of Engineering.

The project began when Martin D. Levin, D.M.D., who is an endodontist based in the Washington, D.C. area and also an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania, viewed the Smithsonian’s forensic archaeology exhibit “Written in Bone.” The popular show, which looked at what investigation of human skeletons could reveal about people and events of the past, included one skull that piqued Levin’s interest.

“I looked at the display of a young boy, showing his fractured teeth and associated abscess, and thought that further study might yield more information about his life,” Levin said.

The state-of-the-art instrumentation available in the NCC’s world-class, collaborative materials analysis facility made it the perfect place to uncover the next chapter of that story. So did something else.

“Dr. Levin came to us, and it was a bit of kismet that all of the parties came together, because [School of Engineering] Dean [Barbara] Boyan’s group has been researching in the field of bone for years,” Cohen said.

 

A window into the past

A team of medical researchers and archaeologists are studying the skull and teeth of a 15-year-old boy from the Jamestown settlement.
A team of medical researchers and archaeologists are studying the skull and teeth of a 15-year-old boy from the Jamestown settlement.

Archaeological records, along with Captain John Smith’s diary, suggest that these are the remains of a boy who died during an American Indian attack on Jamestown two weeks after the expedition landed. The boy’s abscess presents additional opportunities to learn more about life in the Jamestown Settlement.

“This root canal was a reservoir for everything that went into his mouth,” said David Givens, senior staff archaeologist with Preservation Virginia. “With what’s available in the NCC, we may be able to image and analyze all of the contents.”

Using scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy in the NCC, they can examine a tiny sample — roughly the size of a period on a sheet of paper. When viewed on the SEM’s monitor, the “period” enlarges to become a vast, intricate network of branches that can be viewed in detail.

“All of those tiny pieces can be analyzed using equipment in the NCC,” Cohen said. “The [SEM and EDX] analyses provide a chemical readout of the recovered materials. We hope to see what part of the contents of the root canal came from the boy himself and what came from ingested material.”

The concentration of carbon in the sample indicates that part of the root canal material is plant-based. With additional tests, they may be able to learn more about what the first settlers were eating.

 

Interdisciplinary effort

Something like this colorizes the past in a way you don’t see in documents.

The researchers agree that the key to this project’s early success is technology and interdisciplinary expertise coming together.

“This is just the beginning of an excellent collaboration with VCU,” Levin said. “We previously haven’t been able to assess plant material. We hope to ‘truth’ other hypotheses and perform long-term work here, including [with] undergraduate and graduate students.”

The collaboration is made up of scientists, researchers and clinicians from several specialties and organizations. The team comprises James Horn, Ph.D., president of Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, and senior personnel from Jamestown Rediscovery, including William Kelso, Ph.D., director of archeology; Michael Lavin, senior conservator; and Givens. Complementing Levin’s dental expertise, the team also includes Barry Pass, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor of oral diagnosis and radiology at Howard University. VCU School of Engineering collaborators include Cohen, Boyan, Zvi Schwartz, D.M.D., Ph.D., associate dean for strategic initiatives; Dmitry Pestov, Ph.D., NCC scientist; and Sharon Hyzy, M.S., senior research associate.

The payoff promises to fill in missing details about the early history of one of the most unique and important settlements in North America.

“Something like this colorizes the past in a way you don’t see in documents,” Givens said.

 

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