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Archaeologists Find New Clues to “Lost Colony” Mystery

Archaeologists Find New Clues to “Lost Colony” Mystery

When John White, appointed by Sir Walter Raleigh as governor of Roanoke Colony, returned to England for more supplies in late 1587, he left behind his wife, his daughter and his infant granddaughter—Virginia Dare, the first child born in the New World to English parents—among the other settlers. Upon White’s return in 1590, he found no trace of his family or the other inhabitants of the abandoned colony. Over the centuries to come, archaeologists, historians and explorers would delve into the mystery of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke, all failing to find definitive answers.

Based on the scant clues left behind, some speculated that Native Americans attacked and killed the English colonists. “Croatoan” was the name of an island south of Roanoke, now Hatteras Island, which at the time was home to a Native American tribe of the same name. Alternatively, they might have tried to sail back to England on their own and been lost at sea, or been killed by hostile Spaniards who came north from their own settlements in Florida. One enduring theory was that the settlers might have been absorbed into friendly Native American tribes, perhaps after moving further inland into what is now North Carolina.

Two independent teams found archaeological remains suggesting that at least some of the Roanoke colonists might have survived and split into two groups, each of which assimilated itself into a different Native American community. One team is excavating a site near Cape Creek on Hatteras Island, around 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of the Roanoke Island settlement, while the other is based on the mainland about 50 miles to the northwest of the Roanoke site.

Cape Creek, located in a live oak forest near Pamlico Sound, was the site of a major Croatoan town center and trading hub. In 1998, archaeologists from East Carolina University stumbled upon a unique find from early British America: a 10-carat gold signet ring engraved with a lion or horse, believed to date to the 16th century. The ring’s discovery prompted later excavations at the site led by Mark Horton, an archaeologist at Britain’s Bristol University, who has been directing volunteers with the Croatoan Archaeological Society in annual digs since 2009. Recently, Horton’s team found a small piece of slate that seems to have been used as a writing tablet and part of the hilt of an iron rapier, a light sword similar to those used in England in the late 16th century, along with other artifacts of European and Native American origin. The slate, a smaller version of a similar one found at Jamestown, bears a small letter “M” still barely visible in one corner; it was found alongside a lead pencil.

In addition to these intriguing objects, the Cape Creek site yielded an iron bar and a large copper ingot (or block), both found buried in layers of earth that appear to date to the late 1500s. Native Americans lacked such metallurgical technology, so they are believed to be European in origin. Horton told National Geographic that some of the artifacts his team found are trade items, but it appears that others may well have belonged to the Roanoke colonists themselves: “The evidence is that they assimilated with the Native Americans but kept their goods.”

A watercolor map drawn by none other than John White inspired the search at Site X (as it’s known), located on Albemarle Sound near Edenton, North Carolina, some 50 miles inland. Known as La Virginea Pars, the map shows the East Coast of North America from Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout; it is housed at the British Museum as part of its permanent collection. White began drawing the map in 1585, two years before he became governor. In 2012, researchers using X-ray spectroscopy and other imaging techniques spotted a tiny four-pointed star, colored red and blue, concealed under a patch of paper that White used to make corrections to his map. It was thought to mark the location of a site some 50 miles inland, which White alluded to in testimony given after his attempted return to the colony. If such a site did exist, the theory went, it would have been a reasonable destination for the displaced Roanoke settlers.

According to archaeologist Nicholas Luccketti of the First Colony Foundation, which is conducting the excavations at Site X, the group has found shards of pottery that they claim may have been used by Roanoke settlers after they left the colony. Located nearby is a site that archaeologists believe might have been a small Native American town, Mettaquem. After the Roanoke colony met its end, English settlers eventually came south from Virginia into North Carolina, but the first recorded settler in the area did not arrive until about 1655. But the recently uncovered pottery is in a style called Border Ware, which is typical of the pottery dug up on Roanoke Island, as well as at Jamestown, but was no longer imported to the New World after the early 17th century, when the Virginia Company dissolved.

In addition to the Border Ware pottery, archaeologists at Site X discovered various other items, including a food-storage jar known as a baluster, pieces of early gun flintlocks, a metal hook of the sort used to stretch animal hides or tents and an aglet, a small copper tube used to secure wool fibers before the advent of the hook and eye in the 17th century. Based on his team’s findings, Luccketti thinks the Roanoke colonists may have moved inland to live with Native American allies sometime after White left, and these artifacts might have been among their belongings. As reported in the New York Times, the First Colony Foundation will reveal more about its findings and theory this week in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Though the newly announced discoveries don’t solve this lingering historical mystery, they do point away from Roanoke Island itself, where researchers have failed to come up with evidence pointing to the Lost Colony’s fate. Archaeologists on both teams are hoping that a detailed study of their new finds will yield more clues, and—of course—that more evidence remains, waiting to be discovered, in the endless layers of dirt that surround them.

Pottery Fragments May Hold Clues to Roanoke Colonists’ Fate

Archaeologists in North Carolina have uncovered pieces of pottery that they (controversially) argue point to the fate of some of the former residents of the famed Roanoke colony, reports Andrew Lawler for National Geographic.

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A team from the nonprofit First Colony Foundation unearthed the crockery—including fragments of English, German, French and Spanish vessels—at a site by the Chowan River, some 50 miles west of Roanoke Island, where about 115 people attempted to create the first permanent English colony in North America.

“The number and variety of artifacts recovered provide compelling evidence that the site was inhabited by several settlers from Sir Walter Raleigh’s vanished 1587 colony,” says archaeologist Nick Luccketti, leader of the research team, in a statement.

The new report is the second in recent months claiming to hold clues to the whereabouts of the missing Roanoke colonists. This June, Scott Dawson, a local historian and founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, published The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, which outlines evidence that at least some members of the colony moved to Hatteras Island, about 50 miles south of Roanoke. If both claims are confirmed, notes National Geographic, they will support the idea that the colony dispersed into two or more groups before assimilating into local Native American communities.

Roanoke County has long been a topic of interest in United States history classes and popular culture alike. Soon after the North Carolina settlement’s founding, some of its colonists, including Governor John White, left to fetch supplies but found themselves delayed by hostilities between England and Spain. When the group returned to Roanoke in 1590, they found the island abandoned. The only clues to the colonists’ fate were the words “Croatoan”—a probable reference to a Native American tribe living on Hatteras Island—and “Cro” the former was carved into a fence post, while the latter was etched into a tree.

Nick Luccketti, lead researcher in the new investigation (right), briefs local officials on the findings. (First Colony Foundation)

As Matthew Gault writes for Vice, the “mystery” of Roanoke Colony has birthed both serious theories and wild stories about alien abduction or supernatural events. White supremacist groups have also promoted the story of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in the American colonies and one of the vanished Roanoke colonists.

But the image of Roanoke as a “Lost Colony” only got its start in the 1830s, when a book and a magazine article cast the settlement as a “romantic mystery,” as Lawler pointed out for the Washington Post in 2018. Previously, most people had simply assumed that that the people of Roanoke integrated into the nearby Native American community of Croatoan—a common occurrence in colonial North America.

“The ‘Lost Colony’ is a product of the 19th century. It was only in the 19th century that the Lost Colony was ‘lost,’” Lawler—author of The Secret Token, a book about Roanoke and its enduring place in American culture—told Salon’s Matthew Rozsa in 2018. “And the reason I discovered it was ‘lost’ was that the idea of the colonists assimilating with the Native Americans was a taboo. Not only was it a taboo, the very idea was illegal.”

The new findings are part of the First Colony Foundation’s investigations into a site in Bertie County, according to Sarah Cascone of artnet News. Archaeologists began the work after learning of a map painted by White between 1585 and 1593. Housed at the British Museum in London, the document features the outline of two forts hidden in invisible ink, possibly to hide their locations from the Spanish.

The map, in turn, led the researcher to the site, which once stood near the Native American village of Mettaquem. The team found shards of English pottery just outside the village. A second site, located two miles away, has now yielded many more ceramic fragments, suggesting a long-term settlement where residents prepared and stored food.

A map made by Roanoke Governor John White may offer clues to the "Lost Colony"'s fate. (The British Museum under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

“We are very confident that these excavations are linked to the Roanoke colonies,” a First Colony Foundation representative tells artnet News in an email. “We have considered all other reasonable possibilities and can find nothing else that fits the evidence.”

The First Colony researchers claim that the colonists must have dispersed into smaller groups, arguing that a single tribe could not have integrated 100 or more new residents, reports Jeff Hampton for the Virginian-Pilot.

“Possibly, a small group went to Croatoan Island in the fall or winter of 1587 to wait for John White to return while the remainder moved inland to the mouth of the Chowan River and Salmon Creek,” says First Colony board member James Horn in the statement.

Some experts have expressed doubts regarding the First Colony team’s findings.

“I am skeptical,” Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at East Carolina University who led a 2017 analysis of a ring once thought to be linked to Roanoke, tells National Geographic. “They are looking to prove rather than seeking to disprove their theory, which is the scientific way.”

Dawson, meanwhile, maintains that all of the colonists made their way to Hatteras Island. He argues that the European pottery found at the Chowan River site probably arrived in the region through trade between European colonists and Native American communities.

“Bertie was the heart of enemy territory,” Dawson tells the Virginian-Pilot in an email. “It is the last place they would go. The colony literally wrote down they relocated to Croatoan.”

About Livia Gershon

Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for JSTOR Daily, the Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, and Vice, among others.

Enduring Mystery

So much mystery invites plenty of investigation, including even a DNA project throughout the region to see if the Roanoke settlers did indeed merge with the Croatans—a grand idea with little news, and fewer results after its initial statement. In the 20th century, many artifacts have been found in the North Carolina island regions—including a sword hilt and bowls—that can be traced back certainly to 16th and 17th century Europeans, but never decisively to the Lost Colony settlers. Until now?

Archaeologists from the Southeast Archaeology Center, part of the National Park Service, and the First Colony Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to uncovering answers about the Raleigh settlements, discovered two small pieces of Elizabethan pottery. The quarter-sized blue, white, and brown fragments are believed to be parts of a medicine or ointment jar, and were found only two feet underground, very near to an earthen mound that archaeologists believe was once a fort used by the Roanoke colonists. While plenty of pottery has been found or excavated over the years, typically the samples are too small to classify. But these pieces were large enough to recognize as tin-glaze type of pottery that can be confidently attributed to 1570s-1620s. While the small pieces of history are neither conclusive, nor answer those enduring questions about what did happen to the colonists, it points persistently to the possibility that they are digging in the right spot.

First Colony archaeologist Eric Deetz, speaking to the Virginian-Pilot, said, “It was an exciting find.” He estimated that the jar would likely have been 3 inches tall and 1.5 inches in diameter, calling it the most significant piece of pottery found in that area since the 1940s. Said, Deetz, “That pottery had something to do with the Elizabethan presence on that island.”

Archaeological Discoveries From The Lost Colony Of Roanoke

Wikimedia Commons An illustration from the 1870s showing John White returning to Roanoke in 1590 — only to find it abandoned.

The mystery of what happened to the lost colony of Roanoke has puzzled experts for centuries. English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh originally founded this colony in modern-day North Carolina in 1587. But three years later, all of the colony’s 100 residents had mysteriously vanished.

The colony’s would-be governor John White returned from a trip abroad — only to find the settlement abandoned. The colonists of Roanoke only left behind a couple clues. One was the word “Croatoan,” which was etched into a fort’s gatepost. Elsewhere, the word “Cro” was carved into a tree. A recent study has thrilled historians with the promise of answers.

The nearby Hatteras Island was originally named Croatoan. This initially led some researchers to believe that the settlers who abandoned Roanoke simply made their way there to set up camp. But it wasn’t until archaeologist Scott Dawson led a decade-long excavation in the area that this theory was potentially proven true in 2020.

As chronicled in Dawson’s book The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, the archaeological digs began in 2009 and yielded historic finds in 2013. These artifacts — which included copper rings, sword handles, and writing slates — dated back to the 16th century and were also traced to England. So this discovery finally presented a solid explanation of what happened to the settlers.

“As much as I believed the colony went down [to Hatteras], I never actually thought we were going to find it,” said Dawson. “I can’t believe what we found. It’s kind of surreal.”

Together with professor Mark Horton, Dawson and his team are confident that what they found on Hatteras was the “survivor’s camp.” They believe that the dispersed settlers established a new home there before assimilating with the native Croatoans, who, according to Horton, “were friendly.”

Horton added, “It was a good place with one’s allies in a place where you could potentially be rescued.”

Mark Horton Dawson and his team unearthed thousands of artifacts over the last 11 years.

“We not only found evidence of mixed architecture of houses but also metallurgy, where they had blacksmith shops and were also working in copper and lead, and this continued right on into the 1600s,” said Dawson. “It’s hard to say how many, but a few dozen at least lived for a few decades down there in the villages.”

Heartbreakingly, Dawson has witnessed contemporary locals tossing historic finds aside as they build new houses in the region — completely unaware of the value of these items.

That’s why he created the Croatoan Archaeological Society and vowed to settle the centuries-old mystery himself. He had a feeling that the settlers hadn’t actually gotten lost or disappeared. Instead, they simply relocated while waiting for White and his men to return.

By 2020, a trove of archaeological discoveries helped Dawson make his case.

Does X Mark the Spot?

If the gold ring inspired Horton’s digs on Hatteras, then a 1585 watercolor map drawn by White prompted the First Colony Foundation to turn its attention to the mainland.

Known as La Virginea Pars map and part of the British Museum’s permanent collection, the document made headlines in 2012 when researchers discovered a tiny, four-pointed star hidden under a patch layered atop the map. One theory is that the symbol may have marked the location of an inland fort.

“We think this represents the Roanoke colonists,” says Luccketti, holding out two slivers of green pottery.

If such a fort was built in that location, or even planned or discussed, then it might have been a logical destination for at least some of the displaced colonists.

“We think this represents the Roanoke colonists,” says Luccketti, holding out two slivers of green pottery. The shards were found on a recent weekend excavation at what the First Colony Foundation calls Site X, on the Albemarle Sound.

Archaeologists Find ‘New Clues’ in Search for Roanoke’s Lost Colonists

In 1587, British ships deposited 115 settlers on the island of Roanoke and sailed away. By the time Governor John White returned with provisions three years later, every single one of the settlers had vanished. The fate of the so-called Lost Colony has remained a mystery ever since. Now, archaeologists say they may be close to a solution: Excavations in North Carolina have uncovered dozens of artifacts from the late 16th century, The Virginian-Pilot reports.

The governor had been hesitant to leave in the first place. Just two months after the colonists arrived, White’s daughter gave birth to a little girl—the first English baby born in the New World. But his people’s need was dire, and so White set off for England, promising to return as soon as he could. In the event of trouble, White told the settlers, they should “remove 50 miles into the main.”

This ought to have provided a clear search area for both White and modern-day researchers. The problem, says archaeologist Clay Swindell of the First Colony Foundation, is that White apparently didn’t specify a direction.

“No one had a good understanding where the 50 miles might be,” Swindell told the Virginian-Pilot.

But over time, some locations have become more likely candidates than others. One of the current front-runners is a plot called Site X in Bertie County located about 49 nautical miles (57 miles) from Roanoke Island. Situated on high ground near a river, the site would have been appealing to settlers, as well as those who would have come before and after them. Historical records of, and excavations at, Site X have revealed wave after wave of inhabitants, including Native Americans and European settlers, and a governor’s plantation.

The site was first uncovered in 2007 during exploratory digs in preparation for a large land development deal. Preliminary excavations uncovered artifacts from both English and Native American settlements. The deal fell through, but the site had caught archaeologists’ attention.

Their interest only increased in 2012, when historians examining a map drawn by White found that he had included a fort in modern-day Bertie County. If White had been aware of a fort at that location, it’s possible he sent the colonists there. Search parties sent after the settlers never made it that far.

“We put two and two together,” Swindell said.

Swindell says the most recent excavations at Site X have uncovered dozens of artifacts from the colonists’ time, including nails, pieces of pottery, tools, and gun parts.

The team is not ready to declare victory just yet. Finding these items does not mean that Virginia Dare and her family were there, Swindell says, but it does mean that they could have been.

“We have new clues,” Swindell said. “That’s all we can say, there are new clues.”

Roanoke, the Lost Colony

In your group of three you are going to seek out information that tells of the hardships that John White and his colonists endured while they were settling into Roanoke.

You have background knowledge on the native people that were currently inhabiting the Americas. We also learned in chapter 3 about how the different cultural regions were influenced by their location.

Questions to guide your learning :

What tribes were in the area of Roanoke?

What was their relationship like with the English?

Was food easily accessible?

Did they have the means to build shelter?

Using the links below or the books listed, take notes independently to learn about what the first year of life was like for the colonists at Roanoke.

Together write a paragraph describing four different struggles that the colonists faced.

(You do not need to answer all of the questions found in "questions to guide your learning" use these as thinking points or if you get stuck you may want to explore one of these questions.)

Social Studies Alive! America's Past , Chapter 6.2: The Lost Settlement of Roanoke, page 74

ROANOKE, The Lost Colony : An Unsolved Mystery from History , By Jane Yolen and Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple

Each person in your group needs to choose one of the following theories to explore.

Use the resources listed to research your theory. If you get stuck, look at the "questions to guide your learning."

Take thorough notes that will help you best explain your theory to your group tomorrow. If you finish early, then research a new theory.

Good luck solving the mystery!

In this theory it is believed that the colonists were killed off by the native people or by other explorers who wanted to claim the same area.

New clue to mystery of lost Roanoke colony

A map named "La Virginea Pars" painted by explorer John White between 1585-1586 shows a patch stuck to the map -- which could be a clue to understand what happened to the Roanoke settlement that disappeared after White sailed back to England. (AP Photo/British Museum)

A patch stuck to a map painted by explorer John White between 1585-1586,when enhanced with ultraviolet light, shows a faint image that could be a clue to understand what happened to the Roanoke settlement that disappeared after White sailed back to England. (AP Photo/British Museum)

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Has the Lost Colony of settlers been found?

In 1585, explorer John White traveled to Roanoke Island, and made a map and other drawings of the island. In 1587, a colony of 116 English settlers landed on Roanoke Island, led by White.

He left the island for England for more supplies but couldn't return again until 1590 because of the war between England and Spain.

When he came back, the colony was gone -- lost in the wilds of a young America.

Now experts from the First Colony Foundation and the British Museum in London have taken a fresh look at White's 425-year-old map (the "Virginea Pars" map of Virginia and North Carolina has been owned by the British Museum since 1866) and uncovered a tantalizing clue about the fate of "the Lost Colony," the settlers who disappeared from North Carolina's Roanoke Island in the late 16th century.

"We believe that this evidence provides conclusive proof that they moved westward up the Albemarle Sound to the confluence of the Chowan and Roanoke rivers," said James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and author of a 2010 book about the Lost Colony.

Attached to the map are two patches: One patch appears to merely correct a mistake on the map, but the other — in what is modern-day Bertie County in northeastern North Carolina — hides what appears to be a fort. Another symbol, appearing to be the very faint image of a different kind of fort, is drawn on top of the patch.

A Google map locates Bertie County, N.C., where scholars believe the colony may have tried to settle.

The American and British scholars believe the fort symbol could indicate where the settlers went. They discussed their findings Thursday, May 3, at a scholarly meeting on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In a joint announcement, the museums said, "First Colony Foundation researchers believe that it could mark, literally and symbolically, 'the way to Jamestown.' As such, it is a unique discovery of the first importance."

"Their intention was to create a settlement. And this is what we believe we are looking at with this symbol — their clear intention, marked on the map . "

White made the map and other drawings when he traveled to Roanoke Island in 1585 on an expedition commanded by Sir Ralph Lane. In 1587, he led a colony of 116 English settlers there, before leaving the island for England for more supplies.

He but couldn't return again until 1590 because of the war between England and Spain.When he came back, the colony was gone.

White knew the majority had planned to move "50 miles into the maine," as he wrote, referring to the mainland. The only clue he found about the fate of the other two dozen was the word "CROATOAN" carved into a post, leading historians to believe they moved south to live with American Indians on what's now Hatteras Island.

But the discovery of the fort symbol offers the first new clue in centuries about what happened to the 95 or so settlers, experts said Thursday. And researchers at the British Museum discovered it because Brent Lane, a member of the board of the First Colony Foundation, asked a seemingly obvious question: What's under those two patches?

Researchers say the patches attached to White's excruciatingly accurate map were made with ink and paper contemporaneous with the rest of the map. One corrected mistakes on the shoreline of the Pamlico River and the placing of some villages. But the other covered the possible fort symbol, which is visible only when the map is viewed in a light box.

The map was critical to Sir Walter Raleigh's quest to attract investors in his second colony, Lane said. It was critical to his convincing Queen Elizabeth I to let him keep his charter to establish a colony in the New World. It was critical to the colonists who navigated small boats in rough waters.

So that made Lane wonder: "If this was such an accurate map and it was so critical to their mission, why in the world did it have patches on it? This important document was being shown to investors and royalty to document the success of this mission. And it had patches on it like a hand-me-down."

Researchers don't know why someone covered the symbol with a patch, although Horn said the two drawings could indicate the settlers planned to build more of a settlement than just a fort.

The land where archaeologists would need to dig eventually is privately owned, and some of it could be under a golf course and residential community. So excavating won't begin anytime soon. But it doesn't have to, said Nicholas Luccketti, a professional archaeologist in Virginia and North Carolina for more than 35 years.

Archaeologists must first re-examine ceramics, including some recovered from an area in Bertie County called Salmon Creek, he said.

"This clue is certainly the most significant in pointing where a search should continue," Lane said. "The search for the colonists didn't start this decade it didn't start this century. It started as soon as they were found to be absent from Roanoke Island . I would say every generation in the last 400 years has taken this search on."

A Lost Colony find

The Lost Colony is a mystery that has long captivated North Carolinians. Now, eight pottery fragments of a single blue-and-white apothecary jar were found along the shoreline, about 75 yards from an earthen mound on Roanoke Island.

The Lost Colony is a mystery that has captivated North Carolinians for centuries.

In 1587, more than 100 English settlers came to Roanoke Island, commissioned by Queen Elizabeth I and led by Gov. John White, to establish a permanent settlement in the New World. Just three years later, when ships returned to bring supplies to the settlement, the island was deserted. There was no sign of the colonists except for the word “CROATOAN” carved into an abandoned structure and “CRO” etched into the bark of a tree.

Archaeologists recently uncovered a clue that doesn’t shed light on what happened to the lost colonists, but it may reveal more about their life on the island.

Eight pottery fragments of a single blue-and-white apothecary jar were found along the shoreline, about 75 yards from an earthen mound on Roanoke Island. J. Eric Deetz, an adjunct lecturer in the anthropology department in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences who serves on the board of directors of the nonprofit First Colony Foundation, identified the fragments.

Deetz said it’s an important ceramics find — a type of tin-glazed Dutch pottery that dates between 1570 and 1630.

“Glass was much more expensive than ceramics, so these little cylindrical jars were used by doctors, physicians and others to collect things or hold ointments and salves,” he said. “Since this was an exploration of the island, they brought along scientists like Thomas Harriot, and they were looking for minerals and botanical materials and other exploitable resources.”

Because of the shape and form of the jar, which would have been about the size of a small coffee cup, Deetz said archaeologists can determine that it was not used for domestic purposes like storing or cooking food. And because there were no Europeans settling on Roanoke Island until almost 100 years later, “this absolutely has something to do with Elizabethan occupation of the island.”

The discovery has been generating media interest, and Deetz has been fielding calls from The Virginian-Pilot, The Huffington Post, WUNC radio and more. The story has also been picked up by The Associated Press.

“It’s important to stress that this doesn’t solve the Lost Colony mystery, but it’s a very exciting find and now we have another area we can look at on the island that may prove to be significant,” he said.

Deetz’s special interest is in English colonial archaeology, and he worked at Jamestown for years. He was also an on-screen archaeologist with the first season of the PBS series, “Time Team America.” At UNC, he teaches courses on identification and analysis of colonial artifacts and public archaeology. His wife, Anna Agbe-Davies is also on the UNC faculty, as an associate professor in the department of anthropology.

Even though there’s no way to tell for sure if the medicine jar belonged to scientist Thomas Harriot, Deetz said whoever dropped that jar knew Thomas Harriot. And that’s what makes archaeology exciting — finding objects with a direct link to history.

“If that jar was dropped in the late 1580s, the next person to touch that jar is the person who finds it. It’s an immediate, visceral connection. And that never gets old.”

More On This.

"Our best idea is that parts of [Sir Walter] Raleigh's exploration in North America were a state secret, and the map 'cover-up' was an effort to keep information from the public and from foreign agents," historian and principal investigator Eric Klingelhofer of Mercer University in Macon, Ga., told National Geographic, which partially funded the effort.

Historians believe that the symbol may have been the location of a fort the settlers fled to, running from violence or disease.

"It's obvious that that's the only way they could have survived. No single Indian tribe or village could have supported them . They were over a hundred people," Klingelhofer said.

The current theory is that the colonists fled 50 miles south to Hatteras Island, then known as Croatoan Island. Klingelhofer suggests they may have gone in a different direction.

He believes the settlers traveled west via the Albermarle Sound to the Chowan River where there might have been a protected inlet occupied by a friendly tribe.

"It's a very strategic place, right at the end of Albemarle Sound," he said. "You can go north up the Chowan River to Virginia or west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were big trading partners with other Native American tribes."

Once the researchers uncovered the secrets of the "La Virginea Pars" map, they scheduled a trip to visit the area along with the help of magnetometers and ground-penetrating radar (GPR).

"What we do is we get the oldest maps we can find—so we can get a historic sense of what was there and what's there now—and orient them," said research associate Malcolm LeCompte at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, who was responsible for the GPR.

He looked for similarities between the old map and the current topography. The researchers than used GPR, which sends radio waves into the ground and measures the echo of the signals that bounce off of objects underground.

LeCompte and his team found a previously undiscovered pattern that indicated the possibility of multiple wooden structures approximately 3 feet underground.

"I don't know if it's one or a group [of structures]," he said, adding that they "could be joined or they could be close together."

The mere presence of the buried structure indicates that there was a colonial presence in the area. However, while the new information has begun to give archaeologists a clearer view as to what might have happened to the Roanoke colony, there are still pieces to the puzzle that remain unfound. What's the next step in solving this age-old mystery?

Discovering the Lost Colony of Roanoke

Lost Colony Tree (prop) , opens a new window by Sarah Stierch / CC BY 4.0 Lost Colony Tree (prop) by Sarah Stierch

Twenty years before Jamestown was founded, over 100 women, men, and children came to Virginia to try their luck at starting a colony. They arrived on the stormy shores of what we know now as North Carolina. They were not the first to land there. Two years before, another group of colonists, all men, gave up trying to settle Roanoke Island and sailed back to England. The supply ships arrived too late to save the abandoned first colony, but they left behind fifteen soldiers to mind the fort who soon vanished into the wilds, driven off by an Indian attack.

That first colony had their problems with the local tribes, caused in part by English arrogance and made worse by a historic drought that led to hunger for all. By the time the second group of colonists came, the locals were not so welcoming. These settlers arrived in July of 1587 and soon laid eyes on the burned ruins of the first village. Roanoke Island was not their chosen destination, but their ship's captain would go no further, so they stayed on and rebuilt.

Yet, they arrived too late to plant crops, and once again colonists had to rely on friendly Indians to help them survive. They had a strong supporter in Manteo, son of a local ruling queen, who had traveled to England with the survivors of the first colony.

Baptism of Virginia Dare by Henry Howe , opens a new window by Henry Howe / Public Domain The Baptism of Virginia Dare by Henry Howe

Virginia Dare was the first English child born in the Roanoke Colony, on August 18, 1587. She was only nine days old when her grandfather, Governor John White, left her and her young family, along with the other colonists, in their new home. He went back to England to get much-needed supplies, and he meant to be back quickly. Sadly, many factors including storms at sea and the war between the English and the Spanish kept him from returning for three years.

When Governor White finally returned to his colony in 1590, he found it eerily deserted. No one, it seemed, had been there for some time. A sturdy, tall fort had been built where once there were simple houses. They found heavy bars of iron and trunks of supplies, once hidden, now dug up and destroyed. Bare footprints could also be seen in the sandy soil.

The Mark on the Tree

Before he left them in 1587, Governor White arranged that should the colonists choose to leave the island, they would mark their destination on a tree. If they were in serious danger, they were to also carve a cross there. Indeed, upon careful investigation, Governor White did find the word CROATAN carved on a tree trunk. But, there was no cross to show that they were forced to flee for their lives. Croatan, the name of a friendly Indian tribe, would have been a logical place for them to get help if they believed they had been abandoned by their own people.

Croatan , opens a new window by Artist unknown / Public Domain Croatan, artist unknown

The lost colonists of Roanoke were never truly found by Europeans, but some legends suggest that they were adopted by local tribes and eventually adapted to their ways of life. According to Sir Walter Raleigh, survivors were believed to be living in the Norfolk area of Virginia, not too far from Jamestown. But no proof was ever recovered.

A new theory from anthropologist Lee Miller puts forth that, instead of going north and joining with a tribe of their own free will, the colonists headed west towards the mountains. Some were probably killed by more violent tribes, and others would have been sold into slavery. This would explain the sightings of European-looking natives in later years throughout Virginia and North Carolina.

Yet another theory is that the Spanish, who were also trying to colonize the New World, destroyed Roanoke as they had other competing settlements.

Whatever became of 115 Roanoke Island settlers remains a mystery to this day, but it is a mystery that archaeologists, historians, and others pursue in hopes of recovering the true and final story of the Lost Colony.

Read More about the Lost Colony in the Library and on the Web

The Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Edward F. Dolan.
Young, independent readers will enjoy this 48-page history mystery. Includes maps and other illustrations. Part of Kaleidoscope's American History series.The Lost Colony of Roanoke, by Jean Fritz.
Talented author Jean Fritz weaves history, hoaxes, and recent archaeological findings on the doomed colony into a fast-paced story.

Roanoke: The Lost Colony by Brooke Coleman.
This 24-page book is a good choice for younger readers. Includes a glossary, an index, and a list of useful Web sites. Also available online as an eBook.

Roanoke The Lost Colony: An Unsolved Mystery from History by Jane Yolen.
"The Unsolved Mystery from History series is written by acclaimed author Jane Yolen and former private investigator Heidi Elisabet Yolen Stemple. Read carefully and check your clues. You might be the first to solve a puzzle that has baffled people for years."

Roanoke: The Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller.
Describes the two failed attempts by English colonists to establish a settlement on Roanoke Island at the end of the sixteenth century. 112 pages. This author has also written a more extensive book for adults on the same subject, Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony. Click here for other Roanoke books and videos in our adult collection.

On the Web:

NCpedia: Colonial Period
Includes "Roanoke Island: Fact and Fiction" and "Roanoke Island: The Lost Colony." You can ask the librarians at North Carolina's Government and Heritage Library questions on these pages.

Roanoke Revisited: A Teacher's Heritage Handbook for Fort Raleigh National Historic Site
This site from the National Park Service breaks down the study of the Lost Colony into thematic units and includes related Web links for each.

The Roanoke Voyages: A Mystery Story for Young People
This booklet is intended for young readers in grades four through six. Some words and terms which may not be familiar are underlined in the story and explained in the section called "Some Neat Stuff." The information comes from the National Park Service, Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

From Infotrac Junior Edition, available to CRRL card holders
Current Events, a Weekly Reader publication, Sept 6, 2002 v102 i1 pS3(2)
"Vanished Into Thin Air"
This brief article states the facts and explores the theories of the Lost Colony.

Photo Credits:

Lost Colony Tree (prop) by Sarah Stierch (Own work) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Baptism of Virginia Dare by Henry Howe [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Croatoan by Unknown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons