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Digging for clues

European artifacts dating to the late 1500s have been discovered in two eastern North Carolina locations by two different teams of archaeologists, adding credence to the theory that the "lost" colonists moved out of Fort Raleigh sometime during the three years Gov. John White was in England.

In fact, the discoveries indicate to some historians that the "Lost Colony" divided into two groups, one going 50 miles south of Roanoke Island and the other going 50 miles north.

And those rumors that they began living with Native Americans? Well, the English artifacts have been found near the former sites of two Native American settlements.

Hatteras Island

Since the 1930s, archaeologists have uncovered colonial artifacts at Cape Creek on the Pamlico Sound side of Hatteras Island. The former site of a major Croatoan town, it's 50 miles southeast of Roanoke.

In 2015, the Croatoan Archaeological Society uncovered part of a horse bridle, an iron bar, a piece of a rapier and part of the firing mechanism for a gun. A piece of a slate writing tablet still inscribed with the letter "m" and lead pencil unearthed there obviously belonged to someone who could read and write.

The most impressive find, however, is a 16th-century gold signet ring discovered at the site in 1998 by an archaeological team led by East Carolina University professor David Phelps. The lion crest on the ring linked it to Master Kendall, a member of the Raleigh's second expedition to Roanoke Island. The ring, now stored at East Carolina University's Joyner Library, is the most compelling evidence that places the early English settlers with the Croatan tribe that lived on Hatteras Island.

Merry Hill

In 2012, at the request of Durham-based non-profit First Colony Foundation, The British Museum studied an early map by Gov. John White on a light table and discovered a red and blue four-pointed star hidden under a patch of paper. The location of that star: present-day Merry Hill in Bertie County, on the Albemarle Sound near Edenton. Called Site X, it's approximately 50 miles northwest of Roanoke Island.

Artifacts had been found in the area decades earlier, so First Colony Foundation got permission from a property owner to begin more excavations.

One significant recent discovery at the Merry Hill site: pieces of Border Ware pottery. The ceramics reportedly were used by the early colonists associated with the Virginia Company, which ceased operations in 1606. It's a clue that a residential settlement was here before the early 17th century, some researchers say.

In 2015, The First Colony Foundation also uncovered a food-storage jar called a baluster, pieces of early gun flintlocks and a metal hook.

But there's more. A survey taken in 2012 found evidence that another nearby site was the location of a prehistoric Native American settlement that dates to the Early and Middle Woodland periods (between 3,000-10,000 years ago).

In 2013, an undeveloped waterfront home site in Scotch Hall Preserve golf and marina community on the banks of the Albemarle Sound was donated by the developer to the Archaeological Conservancy, a national non-profit organization dedicated to acquiring and preserving the nation's remaining high-profile archaeological sites.

An archaeologist quoted in an article in the Archaeological Conservancy's magazine said the site has "the greatest artifact density and preservative I've ever encountered."

The article states that artifacts include carved bones, soapstone tools and food remains including oyster shells, turtle shells, deer bones and carbonized hickory nut shell fragments.

Although the artifacts uncovered at Scotch Hall are from centuries before European settlers arrived, the conservancy says, "the area would have equally supported later descendant Native American groups."

Keep digging

Although excited by the finds, many researchers say the artifacts don't prove anything about the "lost colony."

Native Americans were quick to scavage anything they could use or reuse, they say. Finding bits of things made in Europe doesn't mean you have found the location of the colonists, they say.

And it's difficult to give the artifacts a definitive date that absolutely would link them to the lost colonists.

So archaeologists and researchers continue digging into the past in the hopes of finally discovering their fate.

Update

More clues pointing to the presence of early English settlers in Bertie County have been unearthed this year at Site X.

In a July 13 program at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, archaeologist Clay Swindell reported about the artifacts recently uncovered in a 850-square-foot tract at the site.

They include pieces 16th-century guns, nails from the period, "bale seals" used to verify cloth quality, tenterhooks used to stretch hides and and pieces of North Devon baluster jars, used on ships in the late 1500s to hold provisions of salted or dried fish.

The excavations, sponsored by First Colony Foundation, continue at the site.

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