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.
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.
“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.”