New Clues to the Lost Colony

Archaeologists, and researchers from a Durham-based non-profit, use a centuries-old map, traditional archaeology practices and new technology to discover new clues to the fate of the Lost Colony.

BERTIE COUNTY — The wind whispers its way through the trees in the forest near the banks of the Chowan River. The branches sway gently back and forth. The trees loudly crack as their giant trunks bend. If only these trees could talk. 

Perhaps the oaks and maples could tell us what happened in this forest near the head of the Albermarle Sound almost 400 years ago. 

Artifacts found in the soil beneath the trees only provide hints at the area’s history. 

“The pattern, the temper and the design of this little piece can tell us a lot,” says one volunteer with the First Colony Foundation while examining an artifact. 

Archaeological evidence verifies that the Native American village of Mettaquem was nearby. But researchers believe they’ve found intriguing evidence that some of the settlers from the Lost Colony on Roanoke Island were here at Mettaquem as well. 

“Some of the artifacts we’ve found were early English types of pottery that would fit with what the Roanoke colonists used,” says Clay Swindell, a research associate with Elizabeth City State University. 

The colonists' fate is America’s longest running historical mystery. 115 men, women and children settled along the North Carolina coast in 1587. Not long afterwards, their leader, John White, returned to England for supplies. But his return was delayed for three years. When he finally did set foot on the shore of what would eventually become North Carolina, he found that the colonists of the first English settlement had disappeared and their fort was found abandoned. 

The only signs left behind were the letters CRO carved into a tree and Croatan carved into a fort post. 

“This is North Carolina’s heritage and this is the heart of Elizabethan America,” says Eric Klingelhofer, Ph.D. and professor emeritus of history at Mercer University, who works with the First Colony Foundation. “True it went up to the James River and the Chesapeake Bay because the colonists traveled there, but they lived here. Those lives and those stories shouldn’t be forgotten.” 

The First Colony Foundation is a Durham based non-profit dedicated to researching the original colonists. Researchers from the foundation found the most tantalizing clue in centuries to the colonists' fate in a watercolor map of the coast. It was drawn by the colony’s founder, White, and is now in the British Museum. Historians believe the map was used explain to British royals what the nation’s explorers were doing as well as attract to investors to the help fund the explorations. 

X-ray spectroscopy revealed a tiny four-pointed star under a patch layered atop the map, marking a location further inland of the original Roanoke settlement. Researchers from the First Colony Foundation believe the fort symbol could indicate where the settlers went. 

“It makes it intriguing and it makes us want to come back and do more exploration here,” says Foundation volunteer Martha Williams. 

“The site marked on the map has a lot going for it because you can fit it into the documentation and journals that show early on, the colonists' intent was to settle on the coast and then move “50 miles into the main” which means 50 miles from Roanoke Island. It appears they didn’t intend to stay on the coast,” explains Williams. 

The inland search makes an important shift away from Roanoke Island, where researchers have found few clues to the colonists' fate. 

At the inland site, dubbed Site X, archaeologists have turned up large amounts of Native American pottery. But they’ve also discovered English pottery similar to that found on Roanoke Island and common at Jamestown. It’s not the type of pottery associated with later English settlements. 

Other colonial artifacts recovered include a hook, a buckle, a food storage jar and pieces of an early gun. 

“We’ve found a number of artifacts that could potentially date to the time we’re looking for,” says John Meyer, with the James River Institute of Archaeology. “But we’ve also found a number of later artifacts as well as a lot of native material, and it is in a mixed context, so is difficult to say what it all means.” 

And that’s the challenge: researchers say radiocarbon and other dating methods aren’t precise enough, pottery styles don’t change precisely over time and Native Americans could have scavenged the materials and brought it to the village. 

While the evidence suggests at least a few of the colonists wound up at the site, nobody can say for certain. 

“It’s quite a mixed bag at this place because we have several thousand years of occupation at this one site with all kinds of civilizations overlapping,” explains Swindell. “You’ve got Native American storage pits alongside 18th century metalworking.” 

And that means the only way to really understand the site is by excavating it. Researchers admit there is a lot of dirt to move, but the hope is by digging into the soil layer by later, the past will become much clearer. 

So far, the findings add to the growing theory that at least some of the colonists survived and split up, making their homes with Native American tribes. 

“And we have found some pottery, different kinds of pottery from different kilns in England, different parts of the country, different styles, that match late Elizabethan production,” says Klingelhoffer, gazing out over the dig site. “It’s intriguing.”

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