First Colony Foundation undertakes multi-disciplinary research that combines highly technological remote sensing with the traditional excavation of terrestrial archaeology, diving of underwater archaeology, and careful reading of archival research. The following provides an introduction to its archaeological strategies, procedures, and discoveries.

An archaeological program at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site was first proposed in 2005 by FCF Research Vice-Presidents Eric Klingelhofer and Nick Luccketti to the National Park Service as a continuation of the excavations that they had undertaken in the 1990s as part of a team assembled by Ivor Noel Hume for the Virginia Company Foundation and funded by the National Geographic Society. At that time the fieldwork was focused on the area immediately west of the reconstructed “Fort Raleigh” earthwork. There, NPS archaeologist Jean Harrington had interpreted a broken-brick-filled ashy pit surrounded by possible postholes, log impressions and outer ditches as an outwork to the nearby fortification. Noel Hume’s excavations, however, indicated that the site was the long-sought-for 1585-6 laboratory workshop of the scientist Thomas Harriot and the metallurgist Joachim Gans. This identification was further reinforced by the mounting evidence of nearby industrial activities, such as charcoal-making and a brick kiln. As the Elizabethan settlement was still unknown, Luccketti dug test units to the north and west, discovering 16th-century artifacts several hundred yards away, among the wooded sand dunes through which the Fort Raleigh Nature Trail winds. It was there that FCF proposed to resume the search in 2006.

But that was not to happen.

First Colony Foundation archaeologists Nick Luccketti, David Hazzard, and Luke Pecoraro with a copper square necklace found in 2008

Shoreline erosion at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site has been a serious problem in the 20th century. Yet over time it has revealed artifacts from the time of the Roanoke Colony. Pottery sherds with a green interior glaze datable to the days of Sir Walter Raleigh have been found along the shore east of the Lost Colony amphitheater. Although styled “Spanish olive jars” by archaeologists today, these wares were similar to the amphorae of the Ancient World, used as containers for a variety of items in addition to olive oil – often serving as water jugs – and were widely distributed by trade in the late 16th century. The shallow sound waters in the same area also exposed the remains of what have been determined to be the wooden casings of early wells, recovered by then NPS ranger and now FCF President Phil Evans. Carbon dating by the National Park Service identified the wood to the time of the Raleigh colonies.

In 2006, FCF was asked by NPS to carry out test excavations along the eroding bluff overlooking what we labeled Barrel Beach, to determine if this may have been the site of the colonists’ settlement. Erosion was a real threat to the site, so we postponed our plan to work in the dunes, and dug a line of test pits one hundred yards along the top of the bluff. We uncovered no evidence of a settlement, but we did find most of an Indian pot of Cashie type from the Roanoke River area and believed to have been traded to the English colonists. Ten years later, because of continued erosion on Barrel Beach, a NPS team with FCF archaeologist Eric Deetz dug additional text pits and recovered a burned sherd of a 16th-century delft-ware “Albarello” pharmaceutical jar. This reinforces the idea that the wells and water jugs were connected to industrial activities taking place around the workshop where there was no well.

Meanwhile, Gordon Watts and his team of underwater archaeologists undertook research dives in Roanoke Sound and Shallowbag Bay in both 2006 and 2007. All the targets examined by them revealed only material dating from the time of the Civil War or later, and close-in survey failed to locate debris from an eroded village and fort. In 2009 the underwater team examined a possible site in Broad Creek near Wanchese, but found no evidence of Elizabethan activity.

At the same time, to take advantage of new technological advances in ground penetrating radar (GPR) and in computer graphics, in 2008 Klingelhofer brought experts from Witten Technologies from Tallahassee, Florida, to Fort Raleigh to conduct GPR surveys between the theater entrance and the parking lot. The advanced capacity of the Witten radar tomography techniques allows archaeologist to see a “virtual excavation” — an almost x-ray quality, vertical video of what lies below your feet. Test trench to examine the GPR targets identified in the Witten Technologies data took place later that year, and their success in locating subsurface features led to a more thorough examination of the area surrounding the Fort Raleigh earthwork. In the subsequent season, numerous targets were located and tested, but none proved to be Elizabethan. Some were tree roots and others were utility lines; one hole in fact proved to be that of a former NPS signpost. This negative evidence suggests two things: 1) that the area preserved a hundred years ago for “Old Fort Raleigh” was subsequently thoroughly landscaped and leveled, perhaps removing as much as half a foot of soil and the artifacts it contained, which explains why so little has been found at that site, and 2) that even so, a settlement would have many deeper features that could not have been removed, and therefore this was not its location.

More promising was the area of the dunes at the park’s Nature Trail. This area revealed traces of Elizabethan activity in limited tests in 1995, and NPS archaeologists had undertaken GPR surveys there. Their testing had yielded no tangible success, but it was hoped that more evidence of the Roanoke colonies could be found there. And it was. With the assistance of archaeologists from Oregon Public Broadcasting’s series “Time Team American,” in 2008 First Colony opened an area where remains from the late 16th through early 18th centuries were found in undisturbed contexts. Then and in subsequent years, artifacts recovered under the dunes include sizable pieces of Algonquian tobacco pipes and pottery, fragments of French ceramic flasks and metallurgist’s crucibles, Venetian white glass trade beads, wrought nails, and an entire necklace of cut diamond-shaped copper sheets that was likely presented to a Roanoke noble. The site also produced scientific data. Most important were the results of Optical Stimulated Luminescence, which determines how long crystallic grains of soil have been buried (away from sunlight). Here, it was determined that a massive sand intrusion had covered the site in the late 1760s. The Great Chesapeake Hurricane of 1769, which devastated coastal North Carolina, is undoubtedly the cause.

First Colony archaeologist Clay Swindell expanded survey testing in the area of the Nature Trail late in 2008. There he found a site from dating from the 1690s through the 1760s, which appears to be the earliest archaeological evidence of the permanent European resettlement of the island a century after the Lost Colony. It also explained why later colonial artifacts have turned up in previous excavations.

Additional remote sensing techniques were employed as First Colony researchers followed up on the 2012 discovery in the British Museum of a fort symbol on John White’s manuscript map of Elizabethan America, entitled “La Virginea Pars.” Although it was presumed that such a fort had never been built, it did show that London was interested in a site outside of Roanoke Island. Consequently, with a Waitt Discovery Grant from the National Geographic Society, we were able to bring satellite imaging techniques from Elizabeth City State University to bear on the head of the Albemarle Sound in Bertie County, where Cashie-type pottery may have had its source. The aerial remote sensing was followed by much GPR after examination of artifact collections showed potentially very early English finds close to a large Native village, one designated on the Elizabethan printed map of Raleigh’s explorations as “Mettaquem.” The GPR survey, and later use of a drone, showed that not only was there no European fort on what we named “Site X,” but that it was very limited in area and could not have contained the full group of Lost Colonists.

But that research still continues, more in the laboratory by Curator Bly Straube analyzing the Site X artifacts than the field team in the ground searching for more. And First Colony archaeologists have returned to Fort Raleigh, with Deetz leading a University of North Carolina team in 2016 surveying coastal erosion for clues to both the Roanoac village that first welcomed English explorers in 1584 and to the English settlement itself, while others join FCF in 2017 and in the future, tackling the unanswered questions about the fort, the scientific workshop, and what lies beneath the dunes.

Roanoke Island Copper Necklace
A necklace of copper squares. It was probably made for a Roanoke Indian.
Randy Little using a hand held magnetometer to relocate anomalies south of Ballast Point.