3D X-ray Microscopy Supports Jamestown Rediscovery

September 3, 2015 ZEISS Microscopy

Unlocking the mystery of the Jamestown graves with ZEISS 3D X-ray microscopy by Mark Riccio

As 3D imaging technologies mature, researchers are finding novel ways to use them to aid them in their work. Archaeologists with the Jamestown Rediscovery project and technologists at Cornell University used non-destructive hi-resolution ZEISS X-ray microscopy scans to create 3D images of hidden objects in order to identify the bodies of four men buried in the 1600s.


The Jamestown Excavation Site. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.
The Jamestown Excavation Site. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.


A few years back, archaeologists digging beneath a church built in 1608 found the site of four graves near Jamestown, Virginia. The vagaries of time and nature had left little but bones, the coffin nails used to seal up the dead and a pair of artifacts which proved the keys to unlocking the mystery of who those graves held.

One, a sealed silver box, had been found atop of one of the coffins, and the other was nothing more than a few delicate silver threads buried in soil. To make sense of what the items might mean, a team from the Jamestown Rediscovery archaeological initiative needed to reveal the identities of those who had been laid to rest at the site, but to do that, they wanted to protect the artifacts from destruction.


A block of soil from the excavation site, containing a hidden artifact. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.


Senior conservator of the Jamestown Rediscovery project Michael Lavin and senior staff archaeologist David Givens, contacted Mark Riccio, a research engineer and director of the Cornell Biotechnology Resource Center CT scanning facilities, to help them unravel the mystery.


Mark Riccio, mounting the box containing the cryptic artifacts inside ZEISS Xradia 520 Versa. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.


Lavin, Givens and Riccio found that one scan revealed silver and silk threads – and silver spangles – locked inside a clump of dirt from the gravesite, and to their astonishment, they were able to identify the threads as portions of a captain’s sash which contained silver wires with silk and fringe. Once they identified the composition of the fringe, they consulted paintings from the period to narrow down what sort of gentlemen might wear similar regalia.


X-ray microscopy reveals delicate silver artifacts inside the excavated block of soil. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.

ZEISS Xradia X-ray microscopy systems allow hi-resolution 3D reconstructions, showing the exact location of the silver artifacts inside the soil non-destructively. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.


“If you had given me the object, I could interpret the X-ray dataset but I wouldn’t have known enough about the object. But sitting with archaeologists, they could ask specific questions, and working together, we could answer those questions and identify the sash,” Riccio says.


In the southernmost burial inside the chancel of Jamestown’s first church, archaeologists encountered an object containing numerous silver threads, silk remnants, and small silver spangles. The object was too fragile to excavate, so a block of soil containing the artifact was removed to be 3D scanned with ZEISS Xradia 520 Versa at Cornell University’s Micro CT facility. With stunning results, the equipment provided enough detailed imagery to identify the object as a sash, which would have been a symbol of rank. The burial was believed to be that of Captain William West, and a sash would have been an appropriate item for an officer. Can’t see the video? Click here!


The team used Cornell’s ZEISS Xradia 520 Versa to create 3D datasets with a maximum resolution of 600 nm/voxel. With a proprietary interchangeable focusing optic, the scanner can locate and scan small sub-regions within a specimen as large as 30 cm in height and 30 cm in diameter. That capability makes the instrument unique in that most such devices typically have strict limits on the physical size of a specimen they can analyze, and the focusing optic is useful for examining specimens that are too rare – or delicate – to be sectioned and thus destroyed such as fossils, museum specimens or exotic materials such as the grave contents.


Mark Riccio with ZEISS Xradia Versa at Cornell's High-resolution CT imaging facility. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.
Mark Riccio with ZEISS Xradia Versa at Cornell’s High-resolution CT imaging facility. Courtesy Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation 2015.


Forensic analysis of artifacts – and significant archival research – revealed that the remains of the four men found at the grave site were Captain Gabriel Archer, a critic and rival of John Smith; Captain William West, who was killed fighting Native American warriors in 1610; the Rev. Robert Hunt, the first Anglican minister at Jamestown; and Sir Ferdinando Wainman, a top officer and the first English knight buried in America.


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About the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation

The Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation is committed to supporting preservation, education, and the archaeological investigation of Historic Jamestowne, the original site of the first permanent English settlement in America, where three cultures–Native American, European, and African–came together to lay the foundations of modern American society.


About the BRC Imaging Facility at Cornell University

The BRC Imaging Facility resources and services include high resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT), flow cytometry, confocal microscopy, light microscopy, multiphoton microscopy, laser capture microdissection, bioluminescence imaging, high resolution ultrasound imaging, spectrofluorometry, and image visualization and analysis software. The facility also provides consultation on project design, instrument use, and image data analysis and visualization, and offers educational workshops and training.


Texts and materials of this article appeared in part at 3dprint.com. Media are courtesy of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, if not explicitly stated otherwise. We’d like to express our thanks to Mark Riccio (BRC Imaging Facility, Cornell University) and Te Edwards (3dprint.com) for the original article.


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