Hidden Images Revealed on Elizabethan Map of America

Contact: Brent Lane, Adjunct Professor of Heritage Economics, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
919-962-8871, brent_lane@unc.edu

British Museum Release: Examination of patches on a map of the east coast of North America by John White (PDF)


After decades of unsuccessful searching, archaeologists may have their best evidence ever of the possible fate of Sir Walter Raleigh’s “Lost Colony.” It comes in the form of a clue from Sir Walter himself, secreted within the 425 year old “Virginea Pars” map drawn by his expedition to site the first English colony in the New World.

Elizabethan Map of America
A transmitted light image of the symbol underlying the northern patch on “La Virginea Pars” by John White, produced by lighting it from below. (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum

At a joint announcement on May 3, 2012, from 10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. in the Pleasant’s Family Room at UNC’s Wilson Library, archaeologists and scholars from the First Colony Foundation and the British Museum will discuss recently discovered new information previously hidden within the map and possible implications for understanding the eventual fate of Raleigh’s “lost colonists.”

The “Virginea Pars” map was produced from explorations conducted by members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke Colony of 1584-1590. The remarkably-accurate map depicts the coastal area from Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout, including the location of many native American villages visited by the colonists. However, until now the map provided little information about the location of his planned “Cittie of Ralegh.”

For Sir Walter Raleigh the map likely served to document the accomplishments of the Roanoke Colony to Queen Elizabeth and to his investors, and as a plan for the colony’s future development. The discovery to be announced shows that the “Virginea Pars” map is an unexamined masterpiece that still guides modern efforts to locate the “Lost Colony.”


Portions of a unique late 16th-century map in the British Museum (which documents voyages to North America for Sir Walter Raleigh), have recently been examined to reveal hitherto unseen lines and symbols that have been hidden for centuries. Using a variety of non-contact scientific methods carefully chosen to be safe to use with early paper, researchers at the British Museum in London are peering at and through two small ‘patches’ of paper applied to an Elizabethan map of parts of modern eastern North Carolina and tidewater Virginia. The first patch (number 1 at the southern end of the map) appears to have been applied primarily to allow the artist to alter the coastline. The second patch (number 2 at the northern end of the map) offers even more exciting finds. It appears to cover a large ‘fort’ symbol in bright red and bright blue and, and has a very faint (just barely visible to the naked eye) but much smaller version of a similar shape on top. There is also a red circle under the patch that may represent an Indian town. The map is part of a large set of watercolours that gave England and Europe its first accurate views of the new world of North America. Drawn by John White, these watercolours from the British Museum collection were the centrepiece of the New World exhibition held at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh in 2007.

“La Virginea Pars”, a map of the east coast of North America (c. 1585-87) produced by the Elizabethan artist and gentleman, John White (P&D 1906,0509.1.3, c. British Museum,) © Trustees of the British Museum

Scholars of the North Carolina-based First Colony Foundation, a non-profit group utilizing archaeology and historical research to learn more about what are called the Roanoke Voyages, note that one of the altered portions of the map is an area explored by Raleigh’s colonists in 1585 and 1586 and where the 1587 “lost colony” may have tried to resettle. The English had hoped to set up a series of outposts linking their territory, called Virginia in honor of Elizabeth I, northward to the James River, where a later generation established Jamestown, the first permanent English colony. First Colony Foundation researchers believe that it could mark, literally and symbolically, “the way to Jamestown.” As such it is a unique discovery of the first importance.

Ongoing First Colony Foundation research to identify the location of White’s iconic drawing of the Algonkian village of Secotan in the Pamlico region, prompted Brent Lane, Adjunct Professor of Heritage Economics at the UNC Kenan Institute and a FCF scholar, to begin a careful comparison of White’s map with what he knew of the local geography. Lane became intrigued with the paper patches and contacted the British Museum to determine whether they covered any words or images drawn on the paper beneath. Curators, conservators and scientists at the Museum have made preliminary investigations that are making new discoveries on a map of old discoveries.

Detail of ” La Virginea Pars” by John White showing the area of one of two paper patches (the northern patch) stuck to the map (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum

There is no visible tear or cut in the paper under the two small paper pieces the researchers call “patches.” It was common for artists at the time to make corrections to their work by placing clean pieces of paper or “patches” over areas they wished to change or re-draw. The northern, almost square patch (number 2) covers an area of the Albemarle Sound, where the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers join. There is only a slight correction to the coastline on its upper surface, but beneath it, on the original surface, is the possible fort symbol, which is visible only when the map is viewed on a light box. The southern patch (number 1) covers initial sketches of part of the Pamlico River, depicting its northern shoreline with ships sailing past. Here the watercolour image on the patch makes corrections to the drawing of the shoreline and river channels and the placing of some of the villages. Comparison of these changes to a sketch map sent back to England during the 1585 exploration may offer clues to the location of the important Algonkian town of Secotan.

These early English voyages to North America sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh led to the exploration of the area around the Outer Banks and two attempts at colonization on Roanoke Island, NC. John White came with the expedition that brought the first colony in 1585, and most of his famous depictions of the North Carolina Algonkians and the local flora and fauna are from that voyage. This first, military colony returned to England in 1586. The following year White led another colony of 118 men, women and children to establish the “Cittie of Raleigh,” of which White was to be the governor. But the colonists were landed on Roanoke Island and White returned to England for supplies shortly after the birth of his grand-daughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born in America. Delayed by the attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588, White was unable to return to find his colonists until 1590, when he found the site deserted and the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post. This was the name of an island at Cape Hatteras occupied by friendly Native Americans, but all evidence indicates that in 1587 the colonists had planned to move inland.

First Colony Foundation archaeologist Eric Klingelhofer of Mercer University, whose First Forts: Essays on the Archaeology of Proto-Colonial Fortifications, examined defences of this period, says the newly visible symbol of a Renaissance-style fort could “be associated with White’s assertion that ‘at my comming away they were prepared to remove from Roanoak 50 miles into the maine.'”

These first English attempts at American colonization were followed twenty years later by a permanent colony on the James River. Soon after the establishment of “James Fort,” the English settlers went in search of survivors from Raleigh’s 1587 colony. A sketch map they sent back to England bore a notation at the upper Albemarle Sound where the “king of paspahegh reported our men to be.” The Jamestown colonists were never able to confirm the report.

An enhanced ultraviolet-reflected image of the very faint image on the surface of the northern patch on “La Virginea Pars” by John White (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail) © Trustees of the British Museum

First Colony Foundation historian James Horn of Colonial Williamsburg suggested in his recent book, A Kingdom Strange: The Brief and Tragic History of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, that the majority of the 1587 colonists relocated at the head of Albemarle Sound on the Chowan River. He comments that “documentary evidence suggests an early and sustained interest by the English in the Chowan and Roanoke River systems. The discovery of a symbol seemingly representing a fort where the Roanoke and Chowan Rivers meet provides dramatic confirmation of the colonists’ interest in exploring the interior (where riches were to be found) and connecting the two Virginias, Roanoke and Jamestown.”

John White entitled the map “La Virginea Pars” and based his work upon surveys and navigational measurements made by the Elizabethan mathematician and scientist Thomas Harriot. This map shows the coastal area from present Cape Henry, VA to Cape Lookout, NC, with a degree of accuracy that it is often compared to NASA satellite photographs. The British Museum reference number for the map is 1906,0509.1.3 and it can be found in the Museum’s online database here.

The First Colony Foundation will offer its interpretation of the altered areas and the reasons behind the changes. First Colony is preparing to develop new research programs, historical and archaeological, to explore this fascinating and mysterious period of early American history.

Further Reading

Kim Sloan, A New World: England’s First View of America, UNC Press, Chapel Hill, 2007.

The attached images are the property of the British Museum. Images must be issued with the full captions (below each image) and the copyright line must be printed if the images are reproduced in the press.