Excavating the Lost Colony Mystery
Excavating the Lost Colony Mystery is a book that was just published. A collection of essays and writings by the experts of the First Colony Foundation, the organization that has been scientifically delving into what really happened to The Lost Colony, the book does beg the question: “Has the mystery of what happened to that first English attempt to colonize the New World been solved.”
The short answer is no.
The more nuanced and accurate answer is, we’ll probably never know exactly what happened, but a picture is emerging that suggests possibilities that are intriguing.
The book recaps the story of Site X, a previously unnoticed marking on the La Virginea Pars map.
The Pars map was created during the second expedition to Roanoke Island in 1586 by Thomas Harriot and John White.
Harriot had been sent to make scientific observations of the new lands and White’s job was to paint what he saw—in modern terminology, he would have been the expedition’s photographer.
The map is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the North Carolina coast and inner banks. Held at the British Museum in London, the map was well-known, but in all the centuries it had existed, no one thought to ask about the two small paper patches on the map…until 2012 when the Foundation asked the British Museum to take a look.
One of the patches was clearly a repair, but the other…well here is Curator of British Drawings and Watercolours Kim Sloan writing in the book about what was under the second patch.
“We quickly saw there was something very substantial there, and looking very closely, I could see that the marking resembled what I recognized to be the symbol for a fort,” she wrote.
When she realized what she was looking at—a possible site for what Sir Walter Raleigh marketed as the Cite of Ralegh—her reaction was human, if not precisely scholarly.
“And then I think I swore,” she wrote.
Finding the location of Site X was not a problem. The map is so accurate that there was no doubt that the location was in what is now Bertie County at the confluence of Salmon Creek and the Chowan River.
The book is divided into five parts, with chapters in each part recounting in detail what the heading for that part is describing.
Part Site X, as an example, includes a detailed and meticulous recounting of the archeological examination of the site by Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, Vice President of Research for the First Colony Foundation, who edited the book. In “Science in the Search,” he describes how careful and painstaking that search was.
This wasn’t just an archeological dig, the equivalent of searching for a needle in a haystack. Kingelhofer writes about how Ground Penetrating Radar was used in greater and greater detail to suggest where they should be digging for Elizabethan structures and artifacts.
Structures? Well, there didn’t seem to be any, even though the symbol of the map suggested a fort. What they did find were artifacts that are consistent with late 16th century England.
As Nicholas Luccketti writes in his chapter The Prima Facie Case for Site X, there is no “smoking gun.”
What they did find, though, is very suggestive.
“It was only some pieces of broken green and yellow glazed pottery that led the First Colony to conclude that they had evidence of the presence of some of the Lost Colonists,” Luccketti wrote.
The pottery that was found would have been the same type of pottery that would have been found at Jamestown, Virginia—founded in 1607—or the 1620 landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. But what the researchers of the Foundation point to though, is the concentration of pottery at that location.
Historically, it is generally agreed that Nathaniel Batts was the first permanent European resident of North Carolina, but he didn’t take up residence in the state until around 1655. A fur trader, his outpost was at the confluence of Salmon Creek and the Chowan River. It is possible that he had clay storage jars and that some of them may have broken while he was there. But the quantity of pottery sherds at the site argues for a settlement of some type—not a single home perched on the banks of a river.
There is some remarkable information that is revealed in the book. Common knowledge, perhaps, among scholars of the Lost Colony, but certainly not well-known by the general public.
John White’s paintings, which are remarkable in their detail, are somewhat dull, almost two-toned. However, researchers at the British Museum, in examining the paintings, found traces of gold and silver, suggesting that the originals were bright and iridescent.
James Horn, writing the chapter entitled “Into the Maine” quotes Captain Ralph Lane complaining that his soldiers were “wylde men…” and that they were undisciplined. That is significant because Lane is the poster boy for why the permanent 1587 colony failed. His arrogant and violent treatment of the Native Peoples ensured the local Tribal nation would view the colony with suspicion and refuse to help them.
Horn, though, also provides confirmation of Lane’s complaint. Harriot, who historically is seen as writing the most accurate account of the 1586 exploration, confirmed what Lane wrote, observing, “They killed Indians…upon causes that on our part, might easily enough have been borne.”
A second possible site has also been located—Site Y, as it’s termed is close by, also in Bertie County. There, too, preliminary investigation suggests a small European community existed for a short time.
Increasingly, it seems, as Klingelhofer writes in the book Postscript chapter, that “Most prominent historians of the Roanoke ventures no longer believe in a single large relocation of site, but instead surmise that the colonists dispersed into numerous small settlement groups…”