Excavations at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site

Background for Current Research

Even occasional visitors to the Outer Banks soon become aware of the significant place that this site—Fort Raleigh National Historic Site—holds in the annals of American History. Here, at the northern end of Roanoke Island, over 100 people arrived in 1587 to establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. Here was born Virginia Dare, the first English child to arrive in the New World. And sadly, here, some three years later, the residents of that “permanent” English colony vanished almost without a trace.

Fewer people know that two earlier expeditions, financed by Sir Walter Raleigh and other investors, preceded the establishment of the “Lost Colony.” The more influential of the two was led by Captain Ralph Lane, whose party arrived at Roanoke Island in 1585 and stayed for about a year. During that time its members explored much of the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds and their tributaries. Lane’s expedition left a permanent mark at Fort Raleigh—the (now reconstructed) fortification that you see at this site.

16th century metallurgical assay furnaces
16th century metallurgical assay furnaces (Source: “Agricola.223”–Wikimedia commons)

Although Lane’s entourage consisted mostly of military men, the expedition’s primary purpose was to gather and report information on the kinds of resources that this region had to offer. Thus, Lane’s party also included three scholars whose work related directly to the scientific goals of the exploration. Thomas Harriot’s 1587 treatise, A Briefe and True Report of the new found Land of Virginia, was circulated widely in England in the late sixteenth century. John White’s extraordinary watercolors provided many Europeans with their first view of the Native Americans that the expedition encountered. The third scholar, Joachim Gans, was a “mineral man” and mining expert from Prague (then in Bohemia) who worked in Harriot’s “science center” to assay the composition of mineral samples collected by the expedition.

The remains related to Harriot’s and Gans’ scientific workshop are the focus of the archaeological work presently being conducted at Fort Raleigh.

The reconstructed fort originally built by the Lane expedition.
The reconstructed fort originally built by the Lane expedition (Source: National Park Service).

The Current Project

The 2021 First Colony Foundation excavation at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site marks the conclusion of a project begun in 2017. Its goal is to identify structures built in 1585-6 as the Roanoke Colony’s scientific laboratory. The project is re-excavating specific locations where previous excavations may have missed or misinterpreted soil changes known as ‘features.’ Such features could be post holes, narrow slot trenches, shallow pits, modern intrusions, or the very common tree holes produced by the rotting of root systems. Slow and careful excavation is needed to unravel the stratigraphy of the site (the chronological record of different soil layers).

Excavating at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site in 2017.
Excavating at Fort Raleigh in 2017 (photo Alastair Macdonald)

Over the years, the Fort Raleigh site has proved to be very complex. Among other disturbances, its features and stratigraphy have been complicated by the remains of a former roadbed, the construction of sidewalks and the many utility lines that crisscross the area, and the (now rotted) root systems of trees. The site also has undergone several previous excavations, all of which have also left archaeological imprints in the soil. These previous projects have included J. C. Harrington’s initial work for the National Park Service in 1947-1950, which revealed the outline of Lane’s Fort, and excavations in 1991-1993, led by historical archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume, which identified undisturbed evidence related to the colony’s scientific workshop.

Ivor Noel Hume and J. C. Harrington confer at the Fort Raleigh site in 1991.
Ivor Noel Hume and J. C. Harrington confer at the Fort Raleigh site in 1991. (photo: Martha Williams)

The present excavation seeks to investigate features related to that scientific workshop in closer detail.