Planet Earth

The Year in Science: Archeology 1997

The Traveler's Tale

By Sarah RichardsonJan 1, 1998 6:00 AM


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Everyone loves a good yarn, and Shakespeare was no exception. The bard is said to have based The Tempest, which he wrote in 1611 or 1612, on an account of a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda. This past year, archeologists in Jamestown, Virginia, announced that they had turned up a signet ring bearing the splayed-eagle family crest of the unlucky adventurer who wrote that account.

William Strachey, a 37-year-old English gentleman and former ambassador to Turkey, was heading for the newly founded Jamestown colony when a hurricane wrecked his ship off Bermuda, explains William Kelso, director of archeology for the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities in Richmond. Some of the crew and passengers, including John Rolfe (Pocahontas’s future husband), made it to shore. They spent the next year on the uninhabited island building another ship, which carried them at last to Jamestown.

Once there, Strachey sent several lengthy letters about his adventures to England. His tale of shipwreck and island living was devoured by curious Londoners, and literary historians are confident that Shakespeare, a voracious reader, was among them, right before he wrote The Tempest. Not only is the story line similar but so are the islands: Shakespeare’s Though this island seem to be a desert echoes Strachey’s Sure it is that there are no rivers nor running springs of fresh water to be found upon any of them [the Bermudas].

Strachey returned to England in 1611. His ring, which was found next to a gunpowder storage pit, is the first of some 100,000 Jamestown artifacts to be linked to a specific individual. But its real significance, says Kelso, is that it places the English settlement of America in a vivid historical context. It shows we’ve got a history quite a few years before Jefferson, Washington, and those guys. It goes back to Shakespeare at the height of his career.

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