Volunteers to dig into Croatan Indian village site again

The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, May 28, 2006
Written by Catherine Kozak

    The last time the long-dormant Croatan site was investigated, a team of archaeologists unearthed a 16th-century gold ring that may be the most significant archaeological find of early American history.

    In June, the team, with many of the same members who were there in 1998 when the English nobleman's ring was found, will be back to revive exploration of the ancient capital of the Croatan Indians in Buxton.

    Organized by The Lost Colony Center for Science and Research , the team of volunteers will work from June 23 through July 9.

    "The people I've spoken to are very interested, because they want to get back into the hunt," said Buxton resident Barbara Midgette, a participant in several digs, including the original excavations. "This is an outgrowth of that, but it is an entirely new enterprise. The interest in it continued because it was known that there was more stuff there."

    Midgette said about nine original members will be part of the 16-member Croatan group.

    "It's so much better organized now," she said. "The Lost Colony Center for Science and Research has done its homework."

    In addition to the ring, a hearth, a gunlock, numerous coins, pottery pieces, shell jewelry and thousands of other artifacts were unearthed. The new team will be looking in a different part of the same Indian village site.

    The 1587 colony of 117 men, women and children who came from England to Roanoke Island disappeared without a trace sometime after August of that year and came to be known as the "lost colony." It remains one of history's most baffling mysteries.

    On Saturdays and Sundays during the dig, the site will open by appointment for "public archaeology," said Fred Willard, the center's director. Letting people participate in part of the dig is a way to get them excited about supporting the ongoing research.

    "Every time we get somebody dirty," Willard said, "they write big checks."

    Willard and Midgette had discovered shell midden and thousands of pieces of pottery at the Buxton site after Hurricane Emily in 1993 exposed the long-hidden Indian debris.

    After veteran archaeologist David Phelps, since retired from East Carolina University, was called in to investigate, Willard participated in several digs under Phelps' direction.

    Health problems have forced Phelps to bow out of this dig, Willard said, although he has agreed to act as an adviser

    Pay dirt of a different kind has also been hit: a 14,572-square-foot brick building outside Williamston - a former school - was donated this month to the research center. Located about 15 minutes from Washington and Plymouth, the building sits on 18 acres and has eight classrooms and a large auditorium.

    "We're going to run an archaeology school," Willard said. "It's going to make an excellent resource for the whole community."

    The building is expected to be renamed the Martin County Science and Cultural Center. It will be dedicated to George Ray, who helped secure the funds. The donor wished to remain anonymous, Willard said.

    Since the dirt got under his nails in 1993, Willard became fascinated with the Lost Colony and archaeology and decided to pursue an undergraduate degree at ECU in anthropology and history - a goal he is close to reaching.

    As a student, he relentlessly traced records, including numerous deeds, that indicated that descendants of the Lost Colonists - with Native American features and English names - live around Chocowinity and Gum Neck.

    It's that research that really got John Gray Blount excited about the Lost Colony.

    Blount, a 71-year-old retired physician in Washington, N.C., is a fifth-generation descendant of the innovative pre-Colonial shipping businessman and inventor, wealthy landowner and founder of what North Carolinians call "Little Washington" - who was also named John Gray Blount.

    Blount's great-great-grandfather - whose brother, incidentally, signed the Constitution - also had purchased a big portion of land in what was later Dare County that included Beechland, an area reputed to be where some of the 1587 colonists may have initially fled to on the mainland.

    Blount, a member of the center's board, said that he can trace himself back to the Lost Colony to Dyonis Harvie, an assistant to Gov. John White. Of the 117 colonists, Blount said, the names of 48 of them can be found in his area.

    "I'm not the least interested in the archaeology," Blount said. "I'm interested in the people.

    "There's not any doubt in my mind that the Lost Colony was ever lost; they're right here. What's caught me is that all these people are in my hometown."

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