Archaeologists Work in Water and on Land at Roanoke Island

June 15, 2010

The First Colony Foundation and the National Park Service have announced today the completion of First Colony Foundation’s May 2010 archaeological research at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island near Manteo, North Carolina.

Fort Raleigh, home to Paul Green’s outdoor symphonic drama “The Lost Colony,” is the site of America’s first English colony, established in the 1580s as “Virginia” in honor of the Queen Elizabeth I by Sir Walter Raleigh.

In the Water:
In the shallow waters of Roanoke Sound just east of the Waterside Theater where “The Lost Colony’ is performed, Dr. Gordon Watts, First Colony Foundation board member and director of the Institute for International Maritime research, led a team of the institute’s researchers in a search for submerged remains of the Elizabethan colonies. This team excavated an underwater trench in the area where a section of a large hollowed tree trunk was removed from the sound floor in 1982. This large wooden remain was C14 or radiocarbon dated by the National Park Service. Their C14 dating indicated a probable late 16th-century date. Nearby the remains of barrel staves and hooping were also found in 1982, and these remains gave similar C14 dates. These wooden finds have been given the preliminary interpretation as wooden liners for early wells, causing the archaeologists to refer to this section of the Roanoke Island shoreline as “Barrel Beach.”

Dr. Watts reported recovering from the underwater trench numerous artifacts dating from the Late Woodland period (before and at the time of European exploration and settlement of North America) and continuing up to the modern day. Many of the oldest ceramic sherds recovered were pieces of what is called Colington series pottery of the Carolina Algonquians. This type of pottery was used by Manteo, Wanchese, and the inhabitants of the Indian towns visited by the English in the 1580s. In recent years fragments of what archaeologists call Iberian olive jars have been collected on the adjacent and eroding beach. Some of the sherds are plain, but some show that at least a few of the jars had a rich olive green interior glazing. Archaeologists will examine the most recent artifact collection to determine if examples of these and other wares are included.

On Land:

On a site along the Thomas Hariot Nature Trail where First Colony Foundation research was conducted in May 2008 and November 2009, archaeologists under the direction of First Colony Research Vice Presidents Nick Luccketti and Dr. Eric Klingelhofer revealed that a slot trench feature found in the fall of 2009 continues in a northeasterly direction toward the shore. Its dimensions indicate that it is not part of a structure, nor a fort stockade, but rather a palisade fence, perhaps five feet high. This kind of feature is found around many early 17th century Virginia houses, and a palisade fence could have served as a defense as well as boundary line or enclosure. The feature’s regularity suggests that it was dug with a shovel rather than an Indian digging stick. It appears that its posts originally sat on the bottom of the slot, and may have been removed, not rotted in place. Evidence also indicates they were not driven into the ground, as in Indian palisades.

Absolute dating of the slot trench is not yet possible as good organic material for C14 dating is not yet available from that feature.
Relative dating is possible, based on the artifacts found in the slot: two Indian sherds and two tiny flakes of flint. The English brought flint to America, and the May 2010 excavation found some large pieces nearby in the buried soil. The difficulty with the buried soil here is that the artifacts have not been lying in chronological order. The soil seems disturbed, perhaps by agriculture or more probably by hoofed animals (swine or cattle). Based on the evidence now available it appears the palisade fence was either Elizabethan or built early in the life of the Mann family farmstead of the early 1700s, located by First Colony Foundation archaeologist Clay Swindell late in 2008.

First Colony Foundation archaeologists have just received C14 dating from organic material, reeds woven with some sort of fiber, found last year in a nearby cache pit containing a complete trade necklace of European copper. The C14 dates for the organic material indicates a 68% probability that it dates between 1580 and 1630, and a 95% probability that it was dates between 1440 and 1640. The median date given by the C14 results for the organic material is 1552.

Archaeological tests in several pits to the east of the Hariot Trail found more Elizabethan artifacts. Most interesting were small blue and white Venetian glass beads, which supplement other 16th-century artifacts from earlier FCF testing there. These finds indicate that Elizabethan activity extended eastward towards the Lost Colony Theater complex. Further testing of the sort recently concluded would not be efficient, however, because of the heavy post-Elizabethan dune and forest coverage. First Colony Foundation archaeologists will assess whether work there might be more productive if on a larger scale, using machinery to create a larger, open area excavation that could be worked for several continuous weeks.

First Colony Foundation archaeologist Dr. Eric Klingelhofer reports the team was able to ground-truth northeast of the Fort Raleigh earthwork two Radar Tomography anomalies that had high potential for being cultural features. Lying between the fort’s guns and the sound, this area was thought unlikely to have Elizabethan structures, and both anomalies were found to be readings of natural features (patterns of roots and tree holes), but the images were proved to detect true changes in the soil. This selective testing has saved the team much time in not having to search areas lacking RT anomalies. He hopes that in the future several other anomalies located to the south of the earthwork can be examined.

During the period of the underwater investigation of “Barrel Beach,” an inclement weather day provided Dr. Watts and his team the opportunity for a reconnaissance of Alder Branch. They found that the heavily wooded high ground around the head of the creek north of Highway 264 appears to be a worthwhile area for remote sensing and testing. Along the bank of the creek south of Highway 264 a potentially advantageous area for extending the search for the settlement site was identified and may be further surveyed in coming months. Alder Branch could have been an important source of fresh water for the colonists. Four centuries ago the water table could have been very different and Alder Branch a much more dynamic stream than it is today.

FCF is planning fundraising efforts to continue archaeological research on these and other sites of potential information on the Roanoke Indians and the English colonists of the 1580s. The First Colony Foundation hopes to resume field research in the autumn of 2010 and spring of 2011.

Phillip W. Evans
First Colony Foundation