CHAPEL HILL — Scholars on both sides of the Atlantic have uncovered perhaps the strongest clue in more than 420 years to North Carolina’s biggest mystery.
Researchers at the British Museum in London, prompted by questions from an amateur historian who teaches economic development at UNC-Chapel Hill, found a symbol hidden for centuries under a patch on an Elizabethan map that could show where the settlers of the Lost Colony went after they vanished in 1587.
The missing colonists, it turns out, may have moved to what is now an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course in Bertie County.
The discovery was announced Thursday at UNC’s Wilson Library by a panel from a Durham-based group of historians and archaeologists named the First Colony Foundation and two scholars at the British Museum, who appeared via video webcast.
The elaborate “Virginea Pars” map was created by John White, the leader of an expedition sent by Sir Walter Raleigh to establish the first permanent English colony in the New World.
White returned to England in 1587 for supplies, leaving about 115 colonists behind on Roanoke Island, site of present-day Manteo.
Because of a war with Spain, he was unable to return for three years. When he finally did, there was no one left, though the word “Croatoan” had been carved into a post at the abandoned fort, and “Cro” was slashed onto a nearby tree, prompting centuries of speculation that the colonists had decamped for Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan.
The fate of the colony spurred several expeditions to find them, centuries of study and searching by scholars and archaeologists, and the outdoor drama “The Lost Colony.”
It also sparked the creation in 2004 of the First Colony Foundation, which is dedicated to using archaeology and historical scholarship to study and explain Sir Walter Raleigh’s various colonial expeditions from 1584 to 1590. The group includes many professional historians and archaeologists, but it was a gifted amateur who asked the simple questions that spurred the new discovery.
Analyzing the map
Last year Brent Lane, an adjunct professor of Heritage Economics at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and a member of the foundation, was studying the map as part of the group’s efforts to better understand the Native American villages of the time. He became intrigued, though, by two small patches of paper pasted over parts of the map.
The patching technique was normal for the time. When artists wanted to make alterations, they’d paste on a patch and draw or paint over it. Still, Lane couldn’t help but wonder.
He was looking at the elaborate map through the eyes of an entrepreneur, which is what Raleigh and White were. It was a carefully-crafted document that was crucial to them for explaining to potential investors what they were trying to do. It was so precise, so well-made, Lane thought, that the patches seemed out of place.
So he asked British Museum officials whether they had ever tried to determine what was under the patches.
When they put the map on a simple light table, which shone through the paper, they saw something startling. Under one patch was a large, square symbol with oddly-shaped corners.
Panelist Eric Klingelhofer, a history professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., who edited a book on the archaeology of such fortifications, said the shape was clearly similar to several depictions of forts from that era, including examples in Ireland, Puerto Rico, Jamestown, Va., and the same colonists’ Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island.
A small adjacent circle matches circles elsewhere on the map that depict the sights of Native American villages.
Analysis showed that the pigments used for the symbol seemed to match those used in the rest of the map, and the material used for the patch also matched the paper used.
Then, though, the most intriguing clue since John White found the “Croatoan” carving got even more interesting. Further analysis, using ultraviolet light, showed markings on top of the patch. They appear to depict the fort with other markings outside its walls that could be expanded plans for a town or even a city.
The museum’s experts couldn’t determine what had been used to make the faint marks. For lack of a better explanation, Lane said, they theorize that the marks may have been made in an invisible ink based on an organic material, such as lemon juice or urine.
It’s possible, he said, that Raleigh wanted to hide the location in case the map was seen by Spanish spies operating in the court of Queen Elizabeth, which could lead to a Spanish attack to uproot the English foothold.
The scholars said Thursday that the fort symbol is too large to be in scale, and so the location isn’t precise. But it appears to be in the area around Salmon Creek in the Merry Hill community, much of which is now taken up by Scotch Hall Preserve, a golf course and residential community just across the Albemarle Sound from Edenton.
Sir Walter Raleigh planned a capital, the “Cittie of Raleigh,” and Lane said that the symbol could show both the planned location of that and the most likely place for the colonists to have moved.
Or it could simply show that Raleigh planned a settlement there, then changed his mind.
“Basically, it could have been a real estate development gone bad,” he said.
It was a likely place for the English to plan a settlement, because they had shown great interest in the rivers that meet there. The Chowan was something of a pathway to the Chesapeake Bay area to the north, and the Roanoke was believed to lead to mountains where precious metals might be found, said another panelist, James Horn, author of a history of the colony and vice president of research and historical interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
And as a destination, it’s supported by one of the other great clues, said Horn: a statement written by White that when he left the colonists they were planning to move to a site 50 miles inland.
‘A clear intention’
There also is evidence that after the main body of settlers left Roanoke Island, a small group was left behind to wait for White and then moved to Hatteras, hence the carved letters that White found, he said.
The fort symbol “was a clear intention, marked on a map,” that the settlers’ plan was to move to Bertie, he said. But that raises yet another question: Did they?.
That, Horn said, would require archaeological evidence.
Another panelist, archaeologist Nick Luccketti, said a number of sites of archaeological interest had been investigated in that part of Bertie County decades ago, and that the First Colony had already begun comparing ceramics found there with those from known English sites of the same era, including Fort Raleigh.
Artifacts from one of the earlier Bertie digs had matched up. The site involved seemed too small to be a fort or settlement, but the results were still encouraging, given that the work of exploring the ramifications of the new clue has just begun, Luccketti said.
The next step, he said, will be to analyze the general area to help determine where to focus preliminary archaeological testing.
Word of the discovery is just starting to seep out in Bertie, and Lane said that when foundation members broke the news to the landowners, they were both excited and cautious about what it could mean.
One possibility: The answer to another of North Carolina’s enduring mysteries: How to boost the economy in Bertie County, which is among the state’s prettiest places, but also among its poorest.
The coastal housing bust stopped or slowed construction and sales at several major projects that could have brought more money into the county, including Scotch Hall Preserve, where only a handful of houses have been built so far.
It was no accident that Steve Biggs, the director of the county’s economic development commission, drove all the way to Chapel Hill on Thursday for the news conference.
“It will be up to the landowners, of course, but we’re certainly hoping that this could bring in some tourism dollars,” he said. “That is, if in fact the Lost Colony is found in Bertie County.”