ECSU researchers go high-tech in old search

The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, March 6, 2005
Written by Catherine Kozak


- Photo by Drew C. WilsonExamining search efforts are, from left, student Danielle Graves, Fred Willard of the Lost Colony center, research associate Keisha Wilkins, archaeologist Anne Garland, professor Francisco C. San Juan and Bonita Ewers, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs.

    Space-age radar mapping may be the latest technique employed in the search for the elusive Lost Colony.

    After a lecture Thursday at Elizabeth City State University, Scott Hensley, a radar engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told members of a multidisciplinary research project at the school that he would be willing to join the effort to use cutting-edge technology to help solve one of America’s oldest mysteries. The colony of 117 men, women and children that sailed from England to Roanoke Island in 1587 was last seen alive that August. No evidence has ever been found of their fate, but some think the cold trail may be warming up.

    Working with the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education and Research at ECSU, the Lost Colony Science & Research Center had earlier used remote sensing to pinpoint areas within 1.5 million acres in northeastern North Carolina that could potentially be where the colonists fled to. The University of Missouri helped in the effort.

    High-resolution satellite imagery had clearly delineated an old Indian trail stretching from the banks of the Alligator River into the mainland toward Buck Ridge, said Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony center. By examining the shading and outlines of the multicolored images, Willard said, it was determined that one large dot was an old well.

- Courtesy Photo from 2001 Production ABOUT THE LOST COLONY The colony of 117 that sailed from England to Roanoke Island in 1587 was last seen alive that August. Its governor, John White, has writtten that the group had decided to build a fortification "50 miles into the maine." No evidence has ever been found of the colony's fate.
EFFORTS TO FIND IT Working with the Center of Excellence in Remote Sensing Education at ESCU, the Lost Colony Science & Research Center used remote sensing to pinpoint areas within 1.5 million acres that could be where the colonists went. High-resolution satellite imagery had clearly delineated an old Indian trail stretching from the banks of the Alligaotor River into the mainland toward Buck Ridge.

    Before the Lost Colony disappeared, its governor, John White, wrote that the group had decided to build a fortification “50 miles into the maine.” Which is where the group is looking with the satellite maps, followed by “ground-truthing,” or on-site explorations.

    “We’re not saying this is an answer,” said Anne Garland, staff archaeologist with the Lost Colony center. “This is all a tool to figure out where to go quickly.” Garland, an archaeologist since 1976, said the group hopes to find evidence of American Indian villages they believe may have been established on some of the ridges that crisscross the mainland. Finding a village could lead to clues about the colonists.

    Francisco C. San Juan, professor and chairman of the Department of Geological, Environmental and Marine Sciences at ECSU, has lent his expertise to interpreting the digital maps. Using special image-processing software, highly detailed satellite images were manipulated to refine the areas of interest. Old maps were also analyzed.

    Sitting at the computer, San Juan can zoom in closer to see features. Images can be coded in different colors. Shadows and shading can indicate large trees or canopy cover, sand , swamp, ridges and the type of vegetation.

    San Juan said students have been an important part of the Lost Colony project. Danielle Graves, a student who had worked on the research for “Science, Settlement and Remote Sensing: Locating the Remains of the Lost Colony of Northeast North Carolina,” said in January she was quickly convinced the new technology could help in the search.

    “In all the Lost Colony research over all the years, no one had ever used remote sensing to try to answer that question: What happened to the Lost Colony?” she said.

    Now, with Hensley agreeable to putting the more advanced radar technology into the arsenal of exploratory tools, the potential exists to decipher the topography in ever more detail. Garland said Hensley told her the Buck Ridge area is a good candidate for effective use of the radar images, which can show fine detail even in hazy or dark conditions and can cut through the tree canopy and other vegetation.

    “If we’re lucky, it will go below the surface,” Garland said.

    One hour in an airplane to take the images would cost about $10,000, she said. Grants are being sought to cover the costs.

    Willard said the researchers are more focused on discounting hypotheses than proving one or another. “The only definitive proof would be to find the fort with 32 dead bodies in it,” he said. Like any science, Garland said, archaeology requires looking at the evidence.

    “We’ll never have the whole puzzle,” she said. “All we have is pieces. You know the picture was there at one time, but you’ve got a lot of missing pieces.”


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