ECU still waiting for archaeologist to return valuable ring

The Associated Press, January 13, 2006

The Ring, which is more than 400 years old, was found at an archeological site being explored by Dr. David Phelps, East Carolina University. Phelps, who has had the ring since 1998, had previously assured the school that he would bring the ring and other artifacts to the university in December.
Drew Wilson/The Associated Press

    Nags Head - A retired East Carolina University archaeologist has promised to return a priceless 16th-century gold signet ring from a dig in Buxton by the end of this month.

    If David Phelps doesn't return the ring by then, the school will consider how to force its return, a school official said.

    Phelps, who has had the ring since 1998, had previously assured the school that he would bring the ring and other artifacts from his digs at the site of the Croatan chiefdom to the univeristy in December.

    But in an e-mail to The Virginian-Pilot, Phelps - who now lives in Florida - said bad weather prevented his return.

    "Hurricane Wilma hit our area in November just when my move back into the house was planned," Phelps said in an e-mail Tuesday, delaying the ring's return.

    The 10-carat gold ring, regarded as one of the most significant archaeological finds of early American history, depicts a prancing lion, an indicator of English nobility.

    The ring and a 16th-century gunlock found in Phelps' excavations at Croatan may be the first finds linking the English who sailed to the New World in 1584-87 with American Indians.

    The 117 men, women and children of Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony disappeared in 1587, leaving a clue, "CROATOAN," carved in a post near the setlement.

    Phelps has said he kept the ring to conduct additional research on it.

    Other artifacts were sent out for conservation.

    Phelps retired as director of the University's Coastal Archaeology Office in 1996 but has maintained some affiliation. Today, his connection is as emeritus.

    Alan White, dean of ECU's Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences, said there have been discussions about "a number of options" to take if the items are not returned. He declined to elaborate.

    When he spoke last week with Phelps, he said, "What I heard was pretty close to an explicit promise that he would be here at the end of January."

    "So, yeah, if it comes to February, and we haven't heard from him, we'll be inquiring about it," White said.

    Phelps first did a test excavation at Croatan in 1983, then undertook several digs at the site after a 1993 storm exposed American Indian midden, or refuse.

    Finds included a workshop area, bone jewelry, coins and pipes. The ring was found during the last dig in 1998.

    Phelps has not yet submitted his field notes, documented the artifacts or published a report on his findings.

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