Archaeologists Uncover Tantalizing Evidence of the Lost Colony of Roanoke
Archaeologists have discovered possible evidence of the lost colony of Roanoke, North Carolina, in the form of two European pottery pieces near a site where the colonists settled in the 1580s.
The researchers say the pottery fragments may be part of a medicine jar of Thomas Harriot, an important member of one of the expeditions, or of one of other colonists, according to the Virginian Pilot.
The possible ointment or medicine jar was about 3 inches (7.62 cm) tall and 1.5 inches (3.81 cm) in diameter and is the most significant pottery find in the area since the 1940s, Eric Deetz, an archaeologist with the First Colony Foundation, told the paper.
The two pieces of pottery, possibly of a medicine jar, that archaeologists are saying may have belonged to members of the lost colony of Roanoke. (U.S. National Park Service photo)
It’s possible Harriot or members of the colony mixed ointments or medicines in the jar, Deetz said. One of the plants that may have been used as an herbal cure was sassafras, which was plentiful on Roanoke Island and was thought to relieve syphilis and other ailments.
The colonists first came to Roanoke Island in 1584. Two other groups followed, in 1585 and 1587. Harriot, a member of the 1585 expedition, drew maps of the area, took notes on plants and animals and learned the Algonquian language under the tutelage of two native, Wanchese and Manteo. Harriot returned to England later.
The leader of the 1585 exploration, John White, drew and painted portraits of the natives and helped Harriot map the region. White also returned to England and never again saw his daughter or granddaughter, though he later returned to Roanoke.
A watercolor painting by John White of natives dancing in North Carolina, 1585 (Wikimedia)
English explorer Walter Raleigh sent the three groups to the coast of North Carolina. What happened to the colonists is a mystery. White returned to England for supplies in 1587 but was delayed in his return until 1590 because of England's war with Spain. When he came back to Roanoke Island, the colonists were gone, leaving only the word “Croatoan” carved on a post and the letters “CRO” on a tree.
“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 )
In 2015, 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, both said 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.
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.
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 New York Times wrote.
“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, who was John White’s granddaughter, and the rest of the Roanoke colonists is entirely unknown. (Image from Wikipedia)
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.
For a short history of the search for the lost colony, see this U.S. National Park Service Web page. Excerpt:
In 1607, when the English established their first permanent settlement at Jamestown, they were well aware that a colony had been left on Roanoke Island twenty years earlier. The Jamestown colonists made several attempts to find the lost colonists; and investigated Indian reports of Europeans living at various locations; but no survivors ever surfaced. The fate of the lost colonists remains one of the great mysteries of American history.
Top image: ‘Lost Colony’ by RadoJavor/Deviantart
By Mark Miller