Archaeologists excavate two sites where Roanoke Lost Colony settlers may have gone
The New World must have seemed so mysterious and alien to the 115 English colonists who settled Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina in 1587. They came from a heavily developed country to a wilderness without European-type houses, bridges, paved roads, inns, taverns or cultivated fields. There were no government officials collecting taxes, no nobility demanding obedience and tribute, no churches in which to worship the Creator of this New World and the much different Old World they'd left behind. There was wilderness everywhere, as far as one could see or walk.
Equally mysterious is what happened to these colonists, who were led by John White, sent on the mission by Walter Raleigh. White returned to England for supplies later in 1587 but was delayed in his return until 1590 because of England's war with Spain. When he came back to Roanoke, the colonists were gone, leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved on a post and the letters “CRO” on a tree.
It is possible these men, women and children had recourse to help if the natives were friendly to them, but the nature of their relations is unknown. The Roanoke colonists came years before the Pilgrims, who eventually warred with the American Indians who'd lived in Massachusetts for at least 10,000 years.
“The Lost Colony,' a painting by Granger, shows John White returning to Roanoke Island and finding the word “Croatoan” carved on post. ( Fine Art America image )
Now two teams of archaeologists, one working 50 miles (80 km) south of Roanoke on Hatteras Island and the other working on the North Carolina mainland 50 miles west of Roanoke, are both saying there is evidence at least some of the colonists went to those places after their colony is assumed to have collapsed. Both sites have yielded European artifacts from the late 16 th century. But there are those who question whether either site was truly inhabited by Roanoke colonists.
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Archaeologists began digging on the mainland site after an X on a watercolor map drawn by John White was found underneath a patch. The site is on Ablemarle Sound. History.com reports on the map and its significance:
“Known as La Virginea Pars, the map shows the East Coast of North America from Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout; it is housed at the British Museum as part of its permanent collection. White began drawing the map in 1585, two years before he became governor. In 2012, researchers using X-ray spectroscopy and other imaging techniques spotted a tiny four-pointed star, colored red and blue, concealed under a patch of paper that White used to make corrections to his map. It was thought to mark the location of a site some 50 miles inland, which White alluded to in testimony given after his attempted return to the colony. If such a site did exist, the theory went, it would have been a reasonable destination for the displaced Roanoke settlers.”
Archaeologist Nichola M. Lucketti told The New York Times, “We have evidence from this site that strongly indicates that there were Roanoke colonists here.” Lucketti and colleagues with the First Colony Foundation have found at Site X the Border ware pottery that those colonists likely would have had with them, a baluster food-storage jar, priming pans from flintlock guns and a hook that the colonists would have used to stretch hides. “No signs of a fort or other structures have been found, but the aggregate of the artifacts convinced the archaeologists that at least a few of the colonists wound up there,” The NY Times says.
Mark Horton, the archaeologist working on Hatteras Island to the south, says he believes some of the colonists came there and assimilated with an Indian tribe. He has found European artifacts from the era too, including a rapier hilt, gun hardware, part of a slate writing tablet but no Border ware, which is a telltale sign of habitation.
Both archaeologists say it's possible the colonists split up and went to both sites. Officials and other scholars are calling for more evidence and further excavations and study.
“Charles R. Ewen, the president of the Society for Historical Archaeology and director of the Phelps Archaeology Laboratory at East Carolina University, says he wants incontrovertible proof of 16th-century occupation, such as a European grave from the period,” says The NY Times . “He is also unconvinced that colonists removed to the Hatteras site, although the findings there could indicate contact between colonists and Native Americans. 'I know we want a definitive answer, and there’s just not enough evidence yet from either site to say that, yes, this is where some of the lost colonists went,” he said. “I’m not cynical, but I haven’t seen enough evidence to say, yeah, you bet, I’m on board with that.'”
“The Baptism of Virginia Dare” is an 1876 etching by William A. Crafts showing the baptism of the first English child born in North America, at Roanoke. The fate of Virginia Dare and the rest of the Roanoke colonists is entirely unknown. (Image from Wikipedia)
The site on the mainland, Site X, was scheduled for development with 2,000 housing units, a marina and associated development until the economic troubles of 2008. The developer still hopes to build the project, but he also wants to have the site excavated properly.
“It’s a 430-year-old mystery, and if I can be a part of solving that mystery, that’s something I’m interested in,” the owner, Michael Flannelly, told The NY Times.
Featured image: Researchers at the British Musuem examined John White's watercolor map using spectroscopy and found the X under a patch on the map. An archaeologist has been excavating at the site marked and has found pottery of a type Roanoke colonists likely would have had and other European artifacts from the era. (British Museum image)
By Mark Miller