Pottery shards uncovered in a clearing between two cypress swamps could be pertinent pieces to a puzzle that has mystified North Carolinians for centuries.
The earthenware fragments, historians and archaeologists say, might hold the most modern clues to the ancient mystery of what happened to the “lost colonists” who vanished from Roanoke Island.
The artifacts were found in a shallow dig site 60 miles west of the Outer Banks spot where John White, an intrepid and adventurous Englishman, brought more than 100 settlers in 1587. Weeks after their arrival, Virginia Dare, White’s granddaughter, became the first child born in the New World to English parents.
Three years later, a great mystery was born, too.
White, who had gone back to England for more supplies and been delayed by a naval war with Spain, returned to the island in 1590 to find a vanished people. The word “Croatoan” had been carved into a fence post, and the letters “CRO” on a tree – cryptic clues to what some believe referred to Hatteras Island, some 50 miles south.
On Tuesday, inside Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill, archaeologists and historians affiliated with the Durham-based First Colony Foundation offered their theories of what might have happened to some of the settlers. They used the pottery shards and other uncovered artifacts – a hand-wrought nail, an aglet (or sheath) used on 16th-century clothes and other evidence of ancient settlers – to embellish their new chapter in the making.
“We’ve gone from known to unknown to a new known,” said Phil Evans, a Durham-based lawyer and president of the foundation behind the dig.
The first known – that the colonists existed – came from the writings and maps of early settlers.
The unknown – which has dogged historians and created a cottage industry of treasure hunters – remains. Did disease wipe out the colony? Were they victims of a violent Native American attack or did the colonists find new community with the Native Americans and gradually assimilate?
Three years ago, in Wilson Library, the same Durham-based group announced a different, tantalizing clue that helped lead them to the announcement this week.
The British Museum, in 2012, took a deeper look at a long-forgotten, centuries-old map of the area drawn by White, called “La Virginea Pars.” Not only was White an artist and employee of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, but he was also later appointed governor of the new lands.
Brent Lane, a UNC-CH business school professor and entrepreneur with a thirst for knowledge about the early colonists, noticed two patches on the White map that he thought needed further exploration.
Scientists at the British Museum looked into the patches and discovered a tiny red-and-blue symbol that Raleigh used on maps he likely showed to investors in his homeland. Closer examination led them to wonder whether the symbol could have indicated a fort or secret emergency location.
That led to more digging and attempts to match the old maps to modern sites.
Eric Klingelhofer, a history professor at Mercer University in Macon, Ga., who edited a book on the archaeology of such fortifications, revealed the shape to be similar to depictions of forts from that era. These include examples in Ireland, Puerto Rico, Jamestown, Va., and Fort Raleigh built by the colonists on Roanoke Island.
Merry Hill focus
Eventually, the historians and archaeologists focused on an area around Salmon Creek in the Merry Hill community, much of it 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 its planned location 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.
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.
Archaeologist Nick Luccketti knew that a number of sites of archaeological interest had been investigated in that part of Bertie County decades ago. The First Colony Foundation had been comparing pottery shards found there with those from known English sites of the same era, including Fort Raleigh.
The map study led First Colony to a place they call Site X. With the landowner’s cooperation, archaeologists began sifting the soil again.
In just the small areas excavated, the sifters have uncovered a high concentration of Border ware, most likely from northern England, and other colonial artifacts, such as a food-storage jar, a hook used to stretch fabric or animal hides, pieces of early gun flintlocks and other signs of early colonists.
The Border ware, the archaeologists say, was used to store fish for sea voyages, and an indication of newer arrivals, such as the Roanoke colonists, not people who had been in the New World for a while.
Klingelhofer, Lane, Luccketti, Bly Straube and Evans spoke for nearly an hour and a half on Tuesday offering what were described as “the faint echoes” of the story of the Roanoke Colony.
Site X, the spot of the promising discoveries, the archaeologists say, is most likely where a small number of “lost colonists” were. The First Colony group speculates that the colonists left the settlement in two waves – a small group of men set out first and then the larger group, men, women and children.
“There’s a lot more unknown to be discovered,” Evans said. “The future before us is one of still searching, still researching.”