Discovering new clues about the fate of the lost colony on Roanoke Island

Archaeologists and researchers from a Durham, North Carolina nonprofit have used old maps, traditional archaeology practices and technology to discover new clues about the fate of the lost colony on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.


Archaeologists and researchers from a Durham, North Carolina nonprofit have used old maps, traditional archaeology practices, and technology to discover new clues about the fate of the lost colony on Roanoke Island in North Carolina.

Here's the story.

If only these trees near the banks of the Chowan River could talk...

Even with all of the pieces of the puzzle starting to come together, they're still missing.

...the oaks and maples could tell us what happened in this forest near the head of the Albemarle Sound more than 400 years ago.

The pattern and the temper and the design, you know, this little thing can tell us a lot.

Archaeological evidence verifies 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 as well.

Some artifacts from this particular site came up that were particularly early English types of pottery.

The colonists' fate is America's longest-running historical mystery.

115 men, women, and children settled along the North Carolina coast in 1587, but the colonists who made up the first permanent English settlement in the New World had disappeared, and their settlement was found abandoned three years later when their leader, John White, returned.

The only signs left behind were the letters 'Cro' carved into a tree, and 'Croatoan' carved into a fort post.

This is North Carolina's heritage.

This is the heart of Elizabethan America.

True, it went up to the James River and to the Chesapeake Bay.

They visited there.

They planned there.

But they lived here.

And those lives and those stories should not be forgotten.

The most tantalizing clue in centuries to the colonists' fate was found on this watercolor map of the coast.

It was drawn by White.

It's now in the British museum.

X-ray spectroscopy revealed a tiny four-pointed star under a patch layered atop the map.

Researchers from the First Colony Foundation believe the fort symbol could indicate where the settlers went.

It has a lot going for it.

You can fit it into the documentary.

There's one statement in the documentation that talks about the colonists' intent to move 50 miles 'into the main' from Roanoke Island, which means sort of 50 miles further inland.

It makes it intriguing.

It makes us want to come back and do more.

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

That's effective.

Oh, yeah.

At the inland site, dubbed Site X, First Colony Foundation 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 found a number of artifacts that could potentially date to the time period that we're looking for.

There's also a lot of later material, and there's a lot of native material, and a lot of this is in a mixed context, so it's difficult to say exactly what we're looking at and what it all means.

The information for where these artifacts come from are put on the bag.

That way, the artifacts stay with the bag.

They stay with their contexts as they transition to the lab and through analysis.

And that way, we know where everything comes from and what unit it came from, where it came vertically, dependent upon the level.

We have several thousand years of occupation at this one site, so we've got all these things overlapping.

So you've got Native American storage pits overlapping -- we have 18th-century probably, metalworking going on here.

So it all kind of overlaps itself.

So one of the ways we can sort of figure out what these features -- what time period they relate to is by actually excavating.

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.

That's probably one of the biggest arguments that we have, or strongest arguments we have for this being an earlier English site is because of the types of ceramics that are coming from -- the types of pottery that are coming from here are specific to a certain time period.

And you don't really see them after a certain time period.

Oh, here's another one.

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 -- different kinds from different kilns in England, different parts of the country, different styles -- that match the late Elizabethan production.