Mercer Student Team Helps Search for Lost Colony

Mercer history professor Dr. Eric Klingelhofer and six Mercer students traveled to Roanoke Island, N.C., over fall break to dig into a firsthand archeological experience and help in the search for the lost colony that vanished from the island more than 400 years ago. The trip also marked the first time that a Mercer student team was able to participate in a dig at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

The group spent a week looking for signs of the “Lost Colony” that disappeared from the island in 1590. Roanoke Island was the location of the first colony of the English nation. The settlement was established in 1585 by military colonists, who were eventually withdrawn and replaced by a civilian group in 1587. This group is the famous “Lost Colony,” so named because a ship landed on the island in 1590 and found it empty. The fate of the colonists has been a mystery ever since.

The Mercer student team digs through two excavation trenches during their trip to Roanoke Island in search of the "Lost Colony."
The Mercer student team digs through two excavation trenches during their trip to Roanoke Island in search of the "Lost Colony."

Dr. Klingelhofer is co-director of First Colony Foundation, the archaeological research program leading the search. The Foundation also helped to fund the students’ trip. The student team spent its week sifting through several sites, cataloging data and learning the meticulous art of archeology, one spoonful of dirt at a time. The students participated in “groundtruthing” (examining by excavation) geophysical anomalies and searched several sites. Often such anomalies are natural, but in this case, the students located several sites that were part of one of the colonies, Dr. Klingelhofer said.

“While we found some evidence of previous park activities we also found evidence of Elizabethan ground surface,” Dr. Klingelhofer said. “We also located an area where there was charcoal, which is likely from that era as well. Charcoal was used as part of the day-to-day activities of the colony, and making charcoal, which was used for smelting precious metals, was important to the purpose of the colony.”

The area where the group was excavating was near the colony’s science center, where the colonists conducted experiments in using the natural resources from the area for export back to England. In addition, the group discovered evidence of possible brick-making, another common activity of the period. The team catalogued the findings and turned over the materials it found for carbon dating, which should give the archaeologists working in the park an accurate idea of when the material was deposited.

“Any evidence, any clues, are wonderful to find,” Dr. Klingelhofer said.

In addition to learning excavation techniques and feature and artifact identification, the students will also be required to write a 10-page paper on their participation in the dig. It will also help to fulfill experiential learning requirements for archaeology and anthropology majors. The experience also made an impact.

“My favorite part was the fact that we actually got to dig, not just watch other archaeologists do all the work. I feel that the hands-on approach was great, because we really became involved in what was going on,” said sophomore Edmund Balzer a double major in anthropology and classical studies. “Even though we didn’t find any artifacts, we still got a thrill when we found something in all the dirt that we dug up.  I’ve always been interested in archaeology and this trip gave me chance to experience what an archaeological dig is actually like.”
The students were immersed in their work on the site, but also their brush with history.

“The search for the ‘lost colony’ is far from over, but our work over fall break assisted in narrowing the possibilities of where the colony was established on the island,” said junior Katie Martin, a earth and environmental science major with a minor in anthropology. “Regardless, it was a true hands-on learning experience, and I feel blessed to be able to participate. I think it is exposure such as this that makes Mercer unique.”

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