Pottery Fragments May Hold Clues to Roanoke Colonists’ Fate

Disputed findings suggest some residents of the “Lost Colony” settled 50 miles west of their original home

Discovery of abandoned Roanoke colony
Two new research ventures appear to support the idea that Roanoke's colonists split into two or more groups after abandoning the North Carolina settlement. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Archaeologists in North Carolina have uncovered pieces of pottery that they (controversially) argue point to the fate of some of the former residents of the famed Roanoke colony, reports Andrew Lawler for National Geographic.

A team from the nonprofit First Colony Foundation unearthed the crockery—including fragments of English, German, French and Spanish vessels—at a site by the Chowan River, some 50 miles west of Roanoke Island, where about 115 people attempted to create the first permanent English colony in North America.

“The number and variety of artifacts recovered provide compelling evidence that the site was inhabited by several settlers from Sir Walter Raleigh’s vanished 1587 colony,” says archaeologist Nick Luccketti, leader of the research team, in a statement.

The new report is the second in recent months claiming to hold clues to the whereabouts of the missing Roanoke colonists. This June, Scott Dawson, a local historian and founder of the Croatoan Archaeological Society, published The Lost Colony and Hatteras Island, which outlines evidence that at least some members of the colony moved to Hatteras Island, about 50 miles south of Roanoke. If both claims are confirmed, notes National Geographic, they will support the idea that the colony dispersed into two or more groups before assimilating into local Native American communities.

Roanoke County has long been a topic of interest in United States history classes and popular culture alike. Soon after the North Carolina settlement’s founding, some of its colonists, including Governor John White, left to fetch supplies but found themselves delayed by hostilities between England and Spain. When the group returned to Roanoke in 1590, they found the island abandoned. The only clues to the colonists’ fate were the words “Croatoan”—a probable reference to a Native American tribe living on Hatteras Island—and “Cro”; the former was carved into a fence post, while the latter was etched into a tree.

First Colony pottery
Nick Luccketti, lead researcher in the new investigation (right), briefs local officials on the findings. First Colony Foundation

As Matthew Gault writes for Vice, the “mystery” of Roanoke Colony has birthed both serious theories and wild stories about alien abduction or supernatural events. White supremacist groups have also promoted the story of Virginia Dare, the first child of English parents born in the American colonies and one of the vanished Roanoke colonists.

But the image of Roanoke as a “Lost Colony” only got its start in the 1830s, when a book and a magazine article cast the settlement as a “romantic mystery,” as Lawler pointed out for the Washington Post in 2018. Previously, most people had simply assumed that that the people of Roanoke integrated into the nearby Native American community of Croatoan—a common occurrence in colonial North America.

“The ‘Lost Colony’ is a product of the 19th century. It was only in the 19th century that the Lost Colony was ‘lost,’” Lawler—author of The Secret Token, a book about Roanoke and its enduring place in American culture—told Salon’s Matthew Rozsa in 2018. “And the reason I discovered it was ‘lost’ was that the idea of the colonists assimilating with the Native Americans was a taboo. Not only was it a taboo, the very idea was illegal.”

The new findings are part of the First Colony Foundation’s investigations into a site in Bertie County, according to Sarah Cascone of artnet News. Archaeologists began the work after learning of a map painted by White between 1585 and 1593. Housed at the British Museum in London, the document features the outline of two forts hidden in invisible ink, possibly to hide their locations from the Spanish.

The map, in turn, led the researcher to the site, which once stood near the Native American village of Mettaquem. The team found shards of English pottery just outside the village. A second site, located two miles away, has now yielded many more ceramic fragments, suggesting a long-term settlement where residents prepared and stored food.

Map made by John White
A map made by Roanoke Governor John White may offer clues to the "Lost Colony"'s fate. The British Museum under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

“We are very confident that these excavations are linked to the Roanoke colonies,” a First Colony Foundation representative tells artnet News in an email. “We have considered all other reasonable possibilities and can find nothing else that fits the evidence.”

The First Colony researchers claim that the colonists must have dispersed into smaller groups, arguing that a single tribe could not have integrated 100 or more new residents, reports Jeff Hampton for the Virginian-Pilot.

“Possibly, a small group went to Croatoan Island in the fall or winter of 1587 to wait for John White to return while the remainder moved inland to the mouth of the Chowan River and Salmon Creek,” says First Colony board member James Horn in the statement.

Some experts have expressed doubts regarding the First Colony team’s findings.

“I am skeptical,” Charles Ewen, an archaeologist at East Carolina University who led a 2017 analysis of a ring once thought to be linked to Roanoke, tells National Geographic. “They are looking to prove rather than seeking to disprove their theory, which is the scientific way.”

Dawson, meanwhile, maintains that all of the colonists made their way to Hatteras Island. He argues that the European pottery found at the Chowan River site probably arrived in the region through trade between European colonists and Native American communities.

“Bertie was the heart of enemy territory,” Dawson tells the Virginian-Pilot in an email. “It is the last place they would go. The colony literally wrote down they relocated to Croatoan.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.