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Collaboration Is Reshaping Our View of Early Jamestown
May 24, 2016

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 (VCU) School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering is giving those words new meaning.

VCU School of Engineering post-doctoral 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 fifteen-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 seventeenth-century America.

The Nanomaterials Characterization Core (NCC) is assisting this effort. The NCC is a research core facility of the VCU Office of Research and located in the Institute for Engineering and Medicine. The NCC is also a partnership between the VCU School of Engineering and the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences.

The project began when Martin D. Levin, D.M.D., a Washington, D.C. area-based endodontist and 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.

Archaeological records, along with Captain John Smith’s diary, suggest that these remains are 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,” says 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.”

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.

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

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, as well as senior personnel from Jamestown Rediscovery including William Kelso, Ph.D., director of archeology; Michael Lavin, senior conservator; David Givens, senior staff archaeologist. The team also includes Washington, D.C. area-based dental specialist Martin D. Levin, D.M.D., endodontist; and Barry Pass, D.D.S., Ph.D., professor of oral diagnosis and radiology at Howard University. VCU Engineering collaborators include Barbara D. Boyan, Ph.D., dean; Zvi Schwartz, D.M.D., Ph.D., associate dean for strategic initiatives; Dmitry Pestov, Ph.D., NCC scientist; D. Joshua Cohen, M.D., post-doctoral fellow; and Sharon Hyzy, M.S., senior research associate.

This article reprinted from materials provided by Virginia Commonwealth University.

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