Team plans to resurrect excavations at Croatan site

The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, November 1, 2005
Written by Catherine Kozak

    Buxton - Seven years after significant 16th-century artifacts were last unearthed from an ancient ridge in Buxton Woods, a newly organized team plans to resume digs at the site of the Croatan chiefdom, a potential archaeological gold mine.

    “There’s intact Indian midden in every site,” Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research, said as he walked down Rocky Rollinson Road, sweeping his arm along the horizon of the wooded ridge. “We have artifacts in every single lot, and we have enough to dig here for the next 40 years.”

    Willard’s group has partnered with universities, scientists, researchers, archaeologists, 35 property owners and volunteers to regenerate the Croatan Project, an effort that has lain fallow since retired East Carolina University archaeologist David Phelps conducted a dig in 1998.

    In a presentation about the group in Buxton on Saturday, Willard said the team expects to start excavations within the site in May. Unless Phelps turns his project over to the group, Willard said, the portion that the veteran archaeologist had worked on will not be touched by the new team.

    Despite a series of setbacks, Phelps said he will be back next spring to finish his part of the Croatan Project.

    The half-mile site, first tested in 1956, was uncovered by Hurricane Emily in 1993, when Willard observed exposed midden, or debris from everyday life, and brought it to Phelps’ attention.

    In the later digs, Phelps found a workshop area, a 16th-century gunlock and a 16th-century gold signet ring that was later identified as belonging to a Mr. Kendall – most likely a nobleman – in England. Those finds were the first tangible links between the American Indians and the English explorers, and possibly even members of the Lost Colony, whose fate in 1587 continues to baffle historians.

    At the time, Phelps had characterized the ring, decorated with a crest depicting a prancing lion, as one of the most important finds of his long career. When he moved to Florida in 2000, he carried the ring and other Croatan artifacts with him for further research. But he did not provide loan forms, reports or the field notes to East Carolina University in Greenville, where the thousands of items found in multiple digs at Croatan, including bone jewelry, coins and pipe, shell and munitions pieces, are supposed to be curated.

    “I don’t want to hinder his research,” said Charles Ewen, director of the Phelps Archaeology Lab at ECU. “I just want to know where it all is.”

    Since Phelps’ retirement, the Coastal Archaeology Office that Phelps had operated at ECU has been “re-absorbed,” he said, and the archaeologist’s connection to the school is only as emeritus.

    Ewen said that in a recent conversation with Phelps, he was told that he will return loan forms in December and that the report on the Croatan work is being written. Published reports on field work lend significance and relevance to the findings and are considered a critical academic record of a project.

    Property owner Ron Midgette – technically the rightful owner of the artifacts – said last week that he is upset that not only has Phelps not returned the artifacts, but that they also have not been accounted for.

    “I’ve been pretty much left in the dark,” said Midgette, who lives in Virginia Beach. “I’m very concerned that the excavation on my property is not complete.”

    Reached at his home in Fort Pierce, Fla., Phelps said Monday that he intends to seek the money to finish work on the Midgette lot in the spring.

    A thesis paper about the pottery sites on Hatteras, “A Middle Woodland Ceramic Typology for Hatteras Island,” will be completed in December by student Dorothy Block, he said. Also in the works, Phelps said, is his publication “Hatteras Island Archaeology” and a book, “Croatan: Capital of an Island Kingdom.”

    The artifacts he has borrowed, including the priceless gold signet ring, will be returned to ECU in December, he said.

    Phelps also said that he will “probably” accept Willard’s invitation to work as adviser on the new archaeology team.

    For Betsy Bennett, the director of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences and a property owner on Rocky Rollinson Road, the focus is on filling in the shadows of the early American history.

    “It’s very exciting. It’s a very important discovery,” Bennett said . “Wouldn’t it be great if we could solve part of this mystery in Buxton, North Carolina?”

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