Mercer Cultural Archeology Class Digs for Evidence of Lost Colony of Roanoke

October 30, 2012

By Katherine Manson, CLA ’13

Seven Mercer University cultural archeology students traveled to Roanoke Island, N.C., for fall break, Oct. 6-13, to research and work archeological excavations in search of Sir Walter Raleigh’s Lost Colony. Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, professor and chair of the History Department, and vice president of research for the First Colony Foundation, led the class in its work. The students got a firsthand view in the search for clues in a mystery that has spanned more than 400 years.

Mercer's archeology team examine a sherd found during the team's dig in North Carolina over fall break.
Mercer's archeology team examine a sherd found during the team's dig in North Carolina over fall break.

Roanoke Island was the location of England’s first colony in the New World. The settlement was established in 1585 by military colonists who were eventually withdrawn and replaced by a civilian group in 1587.  In 1590, a ship landed on the island and found it to be deserted. The fate of the colonists remains a mystery.

“The great mystery of the island is that we have found some traces of the English occupation, the Elizabethan occupation, but very little,” Dr. Klingelhofer said. “These students might have found a clue to it and that was so interesting because what we found is a lot of Indian activity. We think it’s of the right period.”

This is the third year that Dr. Klingelhofer has taken the cultural archeology class to the site. However, this year’s class unveiled the most beneficial clues yet, he said. While on site, the students worked on various service projects, including assisting officials from Roanoke Island Festival Park, where the colony was located. They aided park rangers in marking and lining the ground where previous excavations had found traces of buildings. The areas will be reconstructed and marked for public viewing.  In addition to their archeological excavations, the class also had the opportunity to attend a symposium about the history and discoveries of the Lost Colony. 

The class also tested a site inland for archeological evidence, where they dug three test pits for clues. This area had never before been tested. The site revealed the most interesting clues yet found by a Mercer expedition.

At the site, junior Joshua Whitfield said the team found many sherds of Native American pottery, some of which contained patterned markings on the outside, indicating decoration, as well as charcoal from the period. In another test pit, students dug through ancient soil dating back to the 16th Century and found light traces of charcoal.

“Most importantly, we found probably an inch and a half long of what we think is an iron nail in this desired soil level,” explained senior Aidan Kirkpatrick. “We think that it’s European made, not Native American, which could be tied back, in theory, to the Roanoke colonists.”

The discovery is currently being tested, along with the other discoveries, to determine if the finds are related to the Lost Colony.

In the final pit, students unearthed small pieces of pottery, charcoal, burnt animal bone and remnants of a burned out tree, which suggests the location was not a “casual occupation,” Dr. Klingelhofer said.  The finds suggest the area was likely inhabited during the time of the Lost Colony.

Dr. Klingelhofer is hoping the clues may lead to the location of the Indian village where Sir Walter Raleigh’s men were welcomed to negotiate and exchange gifts at the time of the Lost Colony.

The trip involved a large amount of physical work to dig in addition to research and careful preparations.  The effort was rewarding, however, students said.

“What was most interesting and what I learned in general is just how meticulous the methods are when you go about excavating a site,” Kirkpatrick explained. “Sometimes you end up with nothing and sometimes you find really interesting things when you wouldn’t expect to find anything. It’s really more of an adventure, which is what I like about archeology.” 

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