William Kelso, director of archaeology at Historic Jamestowne and Lakeside native, recently received one of Britain’s highest honors when he became an Honorary Commander of the British Empire during a ceremony at the British Embassy. The CBE is awarded for especially inventive and celebrated contributions, in this case recognizing Kelso for his ground-breaking rediscovery of the original 1607 James Fort at Jamestown Island, Va. The honor was bestowed in Washington, D.C., by Sir Peter Westmacott, British ambassador to the U.S. Kelso is one of only two Americans to receive this honor from Britain this year.
From 30 years of private scholarly research, Kelso concluded that the original 1607 Jamestown fort site, long thought lost to river erosion, could be found near the ancient Jamestown church tower. After a decade-long negotiation with the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities who owned the site and despite skeptical colleagues, his persistence prevailed in 1994 when he led a limited excavation project that almost immediately unearthed traces of the fort walls and 17th-century military artifacts. Since then under Kelso’s leadership, archaeologists have discovered more than 1.4 million artifacts spanning the 17th through 19th centuries with the discovery of a Confederate fort constructed during the Civil War.
“I am humbled to receive this recognition of my lifelong passion for British-American Colonial archaeology,” said Kelso. “It has been an enormous privilege leading teams of talented scholars in a quest to understand what life was like at Jamestown, where British tradition would become such a significant influence on the history of America.”
Kelso’s ground-breaking discovery of the site of the first, permanent, English-speaking settlement in America redefines for both nations their distinct, shared legacy. The site, which still remains an active dig site, continues to provide both Americans and British a demonstrably different picture of their ancestors. In fact, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Jamestown on the 400th anniversary of the colony’s founding, Kelso provided Her Majesty with a personal tour of the dig site.
“Many of the values that bind the United Kingdom and United States to one another can trace their roots to Jamestown: common law as the foundation of our legal system; representative democracy; English as the established common language of the new American economy,” said Ambassador Westmacott. “Our understanding of the role of those values in founding the young America has been advanced by Dr. Kelso’s incomparable work.”
In addition to archaeological research, Kelso oversees program interpretation at Historic Jamestowne. He also works in conjunction with The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to seek recognition for the Historic Triangle (Historic Jamestowne, Williamsburg and Yorktown) as a World Heritage Site. A historically significant location both nationally and globally, this project emphasizes the importance of the establishment of English society in America, including contact with Indian peoples and the arrival of the first Africans. In 1619 at Jamestown’s General Assembly, the first meeting of an elected representative government took place in the Western hemisphere. The Historic Triangle also witnessed the first articulation of a Declaration of Rights in 1776 in Williamsburg, which served as the capital of the largest colony and original state, where principles of religious freedom originated; and in Yorktown, which witnessed the winning of the American Revolution, securing the new nation.
Most importantly, the Historic Triangle is the home of democratic ideas and institutions in early America that evolved into the elective governments seen today in the United States and other countries around the world.
Kelso, one of the most prominent archaeologists specializing in early American history, joined the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities (now known as Preservation Virginia) and the Jamestown Rediscovery project in 1993 to lead the archaeological search for James Fort. Prior to his work for Historic Jamestowne, he served as director of archaeology for Colonial Williamsburg, Monticello and Poplar Forest. He was also commissioner of archaeology for the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission.
A native of Lakeside, Kelso received a bachelor’s degree in history from Baldwin-Wallace College, a master’s degree in history from the College of William & Mary and a doctorate from Emory University.