Seeking the Lost Colony
Archaeologists look for signs of English among Croatans
The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, July 2, 2006
Written by Catherine Kozak
Buxton - Before development and tourism reached this Hatteras Island village 25 years ago, collecting Indian arrowheads and pottery pieces from the woods off Rocky Rollinson Road was as ordinary and easy as collecting seashells from the beach.
“The little kids would sell arrow points for a nickel apiece along the road,” Barbara Midgette said as she stood at the site of the ancient capital of the Croatan chiefdom, or as it’s known today, Buxton Woods. “The neighborhood is the Croatan village. This is it, and nobody knew that.”
Midgette, who lives in the neighborhood, was one of the people who discovered the gold mine of artifacts exposed by a 1993 hurricane and had participated in numerous digs at the site.
On June 23, a team of archaeologists organized by the Washington, N.C.-based Lost Colony Center for Science and Research began the first dig since 1998 at what could be one of the richest archaeological sites on the East Coast.
“The hunt is everything,” said Midgette, 74, the chairwoman of the project’s Croatan committee. “It’s as much fun as hitting the jackpot in the lottery.”
Much of the intrigue in the Croatan projects – at least for the public – has been the possibility of finding a clue, any clue, about what happened to the infamous Lost Colony, the failed attempt at English colonization that preceded Jamestown.
With houses cropping up regularly along the wooded ridge, though, it’s a race between the archaeologists and the bulldozers.
“Not only is it natural degradation, there’s just destruction of the cultural history,” said Charles Heath, the center’s consulting archaeologist. “With every new house, the grading and leveling that’s associated with that, you’re typically taking out archaeological sites.”
Supervising at a 1˝-footdeep pit as volunteer Susan Twiddy methodically scraped layers of dirt with a broad, flat shovel, Heath said that no one really knows what remains in the site that stretches from sound to sea – or what could be found in unexplored American Indian sites up and down the island.
“In my opinion, this particular area of Hatteras Island is among the most important sites in the United States – certainly in the mid-Atlantic region – because we’re sort of at the nexus point of where the first English explorers had any significant interaction with the Native Americans,” he said. “Here we have an opportunity to flesh out that snapshot.”
Heath had been a student when he worked on the Croatan digs in the 1990s. He and another then-East Carolina University student, Clay Swindell, are now working as co-principal archaeologists in the Croatan project, assisted by about 16 volunteers.
Laying down her shovel, Twiddy handed what looked like a lump of dirt to Heath.
“Oh, nice,” he said, eyeing what turned out to be an arrow head. “That’s a late woodland triangular point.”
Different lots within the wooded area will be surveyed. If promising, they will be staked out, tested and investigated. The dig will be closed Monday, but Heath said he hopes to participate in continued explorations of the site in the near future to learn more about the period before, during and after the Coastal Algonkian Indians’ contact with the English.
During the last major dig in 1998, a 10-karat gold ring with a lion’s crest was unearthed. Likely owned by an English nobleman, the ring was the first tangible evidence of contact between the English and the Croatan, the only permanent Indian settlement on the Outer Banks.
It is known that Manteo, the Indian who had helped the Lost Colonists, was born at Croatan and that his mother was the queen.
The last of the 1584-87 Roanoke voyages, the Lost Colony refers to the 115 men, women and children – two babies were also born later – who had sailed from England to Roanoke Island with the intention of being the first English settlement in the New World. War interrupted, though, and by the time an English ship returned in 1590, there was no trace of the colony, except a cryptic message carved in a tree: CRO, and on a post near the fort: CROATOAN. Thus began the quest for the Lost Colony.
Thousands of artifacts have been found during the previous 10 or so digs at Croatan – pottery pieces, a gunlock, coins, shell jewelry and tools – but none was as interesting as the ring. Subsequent research determined that the ring’s crest belonged to a member of the Kendall family. There was a man with that surname on the 1585 Roanoke voyage and the 1586 Roanoke voyage.
Heath said that in further analysis, it was determined that the ring was found among 17th-century artifacts, circa 1660-1700, in a workshop area. It was also learned later that there were a number of Kendalls associated with the 1607 Jamestown settlement.
“For us, as with any artifact, context is everything,” he said. “This is why we dig so carefully.”
Part of the goal of the project includes documenting any artifact that residents have found on the island, Heath said, especially because so much area is being dug up by developers.
As far as the Lost Colony goes, Heath said, if any colonists had come to Croatan, there would be evidence of a blending of cultures.
Fred Willard, the center’s director, said that his research has traced the result of such blending, and that descendents of the Croatan can be found among numerous families with English surnames throughout northeastern North Carolina, including many on Hatteras Island.
Heath said clues of contact with the Lost Colonists would include signs such as houses built differently than the typical Coastal Algonkian small long house, or remnants of 16th-century European pottery.
“I think what we would have to find is some habitation site that would have some indisputable, strong representation of late 16th-century in a good archaeological context,” he said. “We would look for something anomalous.
“Obviously, skeletal remains buried in the English manner with 16th-century clothing … I would say it’s a low probability.”