Still a mystery: Archaeologists tour recently found site

Outer Banks Sentinel, Nags Head, NC, April 14, 2007
Written by Ed Beckley

National Park Service historian Doug Stover examines the site.

    When Colington resident Scott Dawson came upon an earth-works while exploring the dense woods on Roanoke Island some weeks ago, heart rates soared and imaginations took flight. Had someone finally found the site of Fort Raleigh?

    Southeast Archaeological Center scientists from the National Park Service (NPS) combed the forest this week, with other local park service employees, and admitted they've never seen anything quite like the network of rutted trails that spread seemingly without rhyme or reason throughout the woods. However, they were skeptical that the find is 16th Century.

    The historian for the NPS's Outer Banks Group, Doug Stover, said, "We think it's either Civil War era, or something linked to the Freedman's Colony, because Fort Huger was just north of this area, and the main residences of the Freedman's Colony were only a short distance south if it."

    Archaeologist John Cornelison of Tallahassee, Fla., said he has seen "tons of earth-works," yet he and fellow scientist Charles Lawson were baffled by the trails, which intersected each other in places, at angles, but also spread out in rounded "S" curves. The trails are a couple feet wide and several inches deep, and resemble dry brook beds or drainage conduits. "I've never seen an animal or human path worn that deep," Cornelison said.

    Members of the team surmised that the trails were made by the thousands of soldiers and Freedman colonists who had lived and ridden horses there, but it was only an educated guess.

    Further confounding the team were a number of deep and wide holes that defied deciphering. One of the holes was five-and-a-half feet square and several feet deep.

    Only one of the holes seemed to be military in nature, Cornelison said. It is 25-feet long by six-feet wide and several feet deep. Cornelison said it's consistent with a rifle pit, only larger. "One or two men would use these holes as an observation post outside of a fort," he said. Stover said soldiers in the nation's early days dug trenches and piled the dirt up in front of them, to form mounds for defense against enemies. He added that this formation is very strange because it appears that the soldiers built it facing the fort, not away from it. It was evident they had piled the dirt up in back of the trench, making the holes look more like moats or drainage ditches. If the mound was for a defensive purpose, it just didn't make sense, he added.

    Dawson thought he also found some post holes near the trails, and a fresh water pond in the midst, but the archaeologists felt the holes were most likely the void left from rotted tree stumps, and the pond was actually a swamp.

    Stover discovered some artifacts just inches from one of the trails, in shallow ground, which the scientists will take back to the laboratory to evaluate for age.

    Stover noted that for years scientists have believed that Fort Huger had been on this tract of land, farther north, but that it had been lost to the Roanoke Sound due to erosion. The fort was on about 10 acres, and perhaps these earth-works are a small remnant of the fort grounds, he speculated.

    Stover said he tried to get aerial photographs of the "S" works, but he couldn't track the image from the sky due to heavy foliage. NPS Law Enforcement Ranger Stephen Ryan tried to draw a rough map of the trail system as he walked it, and it appeared to form a large U-shaped perimeter. What may have been contained within the perimeter, if anything, is not currently known. Cornelisun ruled out some of the earth-works as being part of a military defense system. Stover speculated they're a combination of Civil War and Freedman Colony activity, but he noted there's some hope that the archaeologists may find 16th Century relics in the earth-works, because our ancestors liked to build new structures over old structures, and it's possible this is the case here.

    Stover said the park service has almost ruled out the thought that Dawson found Fort Raleigh or the site of the first English village in the New World, on this land. He did add, "Some people think the Lost Colony may be under it," however.

    Cornelisun and Lawson were returning to Tallahassee to share their visual survey with their supervisor, who will decide any next steps.

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