Looking For The Lost Colony

Archaeologists are trying to learn what became of 118 men, women, and children who vanished from the New World’s first English settlement.

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Archaeologists excavate around and within Fort Raleigh’s reconstructed earthwork in 1990. CREDIT: Ira Block
Archaeologists excavate around and within Fort Raleigh’s reconstructed earthwork in 1990. CREDIT: Ira Block

Fall 2016: By Paula Neely.

On a sunny day last April, several First Colony Foundation (FCF) archaeologists made their way carefully along a narrow stretch of sandy beach at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on the north coast of Roanoke Island, in North Carolina. The first English settlement in the New World was established here in 1585 by a group of colonists sent by Sir Walter Raleigh. Another group of colonists arrived on the island in 1587 and vanished without a trace, leaving only the word  “CROATOAN” carved in a gate post and “CRO” etched into a tree. Despite numerous attempts to find them, what happened to the Lost Colonists, as they are known today, remains America’s oldest unsolved mystery. Where and how they lived on the island is also a mystery. Almost 430 years later, archaeologists are trying to solve this mystery, but it’s a race against time as erosion continues to wash away evidence.

Established in 2004 by a group of archaeologists and historians, the FCF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conducting archaeological and historical research related to Raleigh’s expeditions to Roanoke Island. Its board members include Eric Klingelhofer of Mercer University, Nicholas Luccketti of the James River Institute for Archaeology, and James Horn, a historian and president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, as well as other colonial scholars. The FCF is funded through grants and donations and its board members and many other researchers volunteer their time.

In partnership with the National Park Service (NPS), the FCF has developed a five-year research plan to investigate the Fort Raleigh site. FCF President Phil Evans, a former NPS ranger who became a lawyer, said the foundation plans to spend a few weeks in the field each year as funding and access to sites permit. Fort Raleigh does not have a staff archaeologist and it has worked with various organizations to conduct archaeological investigations since the 1990s. “There was work that could and should be done, but no university, or the National Park Service, was going to do it,” he said. The FCF is helping to fill the void.

Summary. Read More in our Fall 2016 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 20 No. 3. Browse Content of this Issue: Fall 2016.

Browse Articles Summaries from our last issue, Summer 2016 .

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