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What Is Site X And What Does It Tell Us About The 'Lost Colony'?

Excavations at Site X in 2014 helped yield possible proof that a group of Roanoke colonists moved inland.
First Colony Foundation
Excavations at Site X in 2014 helped yield possible proof that a group of Roanoke colonists moved inland.

The fate of the "Lost Colony" on Roanoke Island remains one of the biggest questions in North Carolina history.

Some believe the colony moved to Hatteras Island and others believe they assimilated into local native tribes.

 Archaeologists from the First Colony Foundation have been mining the coast for several years in Bertie County on the Albemarle Sound. New artifacts such as border ware and storage jars at the excavation site called Site X indicate a small group of colonists may have moved inland. 

Host Frank Stasio talked to Archaeologist Nick Luccketti about the discovery, and what it means going forward as the search continues for the vanished colonists:

What did you find at the site?

Nick Luccketti: On the north side of Salmon Creek, we found several types of English pottery that we believe were used by Roanoke colonists. They represent objects that would have been used in food storage and food preparation, so they represent things used in the day-to-day living. There's not a large number of them so we think we are looking at maybe six to eight, or possibly ten, Roanoke colonists being in this area for an undetermined length of time.

How do you know these artifacts belonged to Roanoke colonists?

NL: Our research into the two kinds of pottery shows they are only found on very early 17th-century sites in Virginia. They are English ceramics that are made in the Surrey, Hampshire and North Devon regions. There are not a lot of North Carolina sites to compare them to. We looked at over 20 sites from the first half of the 17th century in Virginia to see how frequently these two types of pottery occurred on those sites, and the trend clearly shows that they only occur on the very first early settlement sites in Virginia in any numbers at all.

What is the "Lost Colony"?

NL: In 1587, Sir Walter Raleigh sent over a colony of 117 men, women and children. That was supposed to be a permanent settlement in the New World. Their governor, John White, left the Roanoke colony to go back to England in September 1587. He wasn't able to return to Roanoke until 1590 and found the settlement was in ruins, but there was a word carved on the gate post of the fort which had been torn down. It was the word "Croatoan," which was the Indian village in the vicinity of present day Cape Hatteras.

When John White left, he told the colonists if they were going to leave the island to leave a signal where they went, and if they left in distress to carve a cross over the signal. There was no cross on the post. John White never got the opportunity to go Hatteras to see if any of the colonists were there. Their whereabouts have remained a mystery ever since.

How likely is it the colonists went to the Croatoan village?

NL: I don’t think any researchers, scholars or adventurers deny there was some group of colonists that did go to Croatoan. There is a very good argument that can be made that the main body did not go because such a large number descending on an Indian village would put incredible pressure on the food supply that was available. We do know from another scientific study that the late 16th and early 17th century was the worst drought in 800 years in the area. That put more pressure on the food supply that was available to the Native Americans. So for a large number of Englishmen to move to a friendly Indian village with all those competing mouths for a very limited supply seems like an incredible possibility.

What is Site X?

NL: There are surviving accounts from Raleigh’s 1584 reconnaissance voyage to the area, and from the first expedition in 1585 that Raleigh sent. In both instances, there were explorations up the Western Albemarle. Interest specifically in this Salmon Creek area was reinforced by the discovery of hidden fort symbols under and on top of a patch that John White had painted. That led the First Colony Foundation to take a second look at a site where some 17th century artifacts had been found.

The possibility of the Roanoke colonists' presence led the First Colony Foundation to do a limited excavation on the site in 2012, and a more extensive excavation in 2014, all of which unearthed many more shards of border ware, more shards of the storage jars, and some other artifacts which research also indicates were used predominantly in early 16th and 17th century. We think we have a nice assemblage of artifacts that indicate a small group of Englishmen were there in the late 16th, early 17th century. We suggest those are Roanoke colonists and not any other Englishman because  there is no documentation that any Europeans are in that area until the mid 1560s.

Luccketti said the artifacts indicate that if some of the colonists were in Salmon Creek, they were not there for long. The First Colony Foundation will now decide whether to continue examining Site X or search for artifacts in nearby areas.

Below is a map of three areas in North Carolina archaeologists suspect were inhabited by the colonists, including the location of the original settlement.

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Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
Charlie Shelton-Ormond is a podcast producer for WUNC.