The Ring of History

In Virginia, our state history is a point of pride, a passion which unites us all. And that history is largely centered around Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. But history is not a fixed series of events; it is always changing and growing. Now, a Caroline County business has the opportunity to aid in that evolution.

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In December 2015, fragments of a bell were found throughout the Jamestown archaeological site. And while a bell does not seem like much to get excited about, the Jamestowne Society, Jamestown Rediscovery, and B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry were all thrilled with the discovery. Benjamin Sunderlin, an expert campanologist who is proficient in the casting methods of 17th century bells, reached out to the Jamestown archaeology team after reading about the bell fragments and offered his services. And on the morning of July 25, 2017, the collaboration of these experts started to come to fruition. After having made a mold of how the destroyed bell originally looked (and sounded), the Sunderlin team poured the shape for a recreation as members of the Jamestowne Society and Jamestown Rediscovery looked on with excitement.

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Alissa Demato (left), a VCU student working and studying at B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry, assists Kate and Benjamin Sunderlin in pouring molten metal into the mold for the Jamestown bell.

The passion that Sunderlin and his wife Kate have for bells and for the Jamestown bell project is clear. Their team has taken painstaking care to recreate the bell and remain true to this part of American history. Kate spoke of bells having personalities of their own, saying, “Bells are often refered to in the first person. Often the inscription inside reads ‘I sing, I was made by’. Bells have agency”. The original bell was likely broken in a fire which caused the bell to fall from the tower and shatter. The fragments bear marks which can only be made in intense heat after already having been broken. The Sunderlin team was, “lucky because they come from exactly the place you would need to reconstruct the profile,” according to Kate.

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A bell is made of a “true bell” and a “false bell”. The true bell is the part that is struck by the clapper, making the sound and calling everyone to attention. The false bell is the visible layer which can be safely decorated and inscribed without disrupting the sound. The bell-making process is long, arduous, and hot. The molten metal which was poured into the mold for the Jamestown bell was 2,000 degrees, and larger bells could be even hotter. B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry is the only foundry of its kind in the United States, utilizing methods no longer practiced this side of the Atlantic. This made them the perfect fit for the Jamestown bell project, as the recreation is being made using the same technique as the original.

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After cooling for 24 hours, the mold will be opened and work can begin on the decorative layer.

Dr. James Horn, the current President and Chief Officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, stated that the bell will be an integral part of “reconstituting the Jamestown of four-hundred years ago. These bells were functional and they would ring people not only to services, but to work and work breaks.” It is the hope of the curators at Jamestown that the new bell can be incorporated back into the church. Although likely to remain out of reach of visitors, the bell will probably be rung at regular intervals by Jamestown staff, further enhancing the historical recreation. Merry Outlaw, a curator with Jamestown Rediscovery, said, “We know that two were in use in the 1608 church at Jamestown, and this is probably one of these early bells. Benjamin suggests that it may have originally been a ship’s bell that was reused in the church.”

The Jamestowne Society (a group of direct descendants of the original Jamestown settlers) and the Jamestown Rediscovery Project (the archaeologists working to uncover Jamestown’s history came together out of a shared passion to bring another element of the settlement’s setting back to life. The Jamestowne Society gave $100,000 to Jamestown Rediscovery, all donations from the Society’s membership, whose ancestors would have heard the bell every day. Bonnie Hofmeyer, Executive Director of the Jamestowne Society, said, “We know the sounds of a church bell have not been heard on the island for over 250 years.  We wanted to be a part of bringing that sound back to the island.”

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LTR: John Shelton (JS), Bonnie Hofmeyer (JS) Hayden Bassett (JR), Jerry Zillion (JS), Kate Sunderlin, Benjamin Sunderlin, Jim Horn (JR), Sallie Marshall, Merry Outlaw (JR), Bill Kelso (JR), Alissa Demato, Cathy Woodhouse (JS), Denise Kellogg (JR).

The Virginia House of Burgesses first convened in July of 1619 and marked the first assembly of elected governmental officials in the New World. In 2019, Jamestown is planning a 400th anniversary celebration of this momentous occasion. According to Merry Outlaw, “It will be installed in a small space between the standing 17th century church tower ruin and the 1906 Memorial Church that was built for the 300th anniversary at Jamestown. It will be rung on very special occasions, such as events that commemorate the anniversary of the First Legislative Assembly. […] We are thrilled to once again hear a sound of the early 17th century at Jamestown.”

 

Rediscovery Jamestown is an archaeological organization, and more information can be found at historicjamestowne.org.
The Jamestowne Society is a genealogical society, found online at jamestowne.org.
B.A. Sunderlin Bellfoundry is located in Caroline County and online at sunderlinfoundry.com.
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