Latest excavations give new clues to Fort Raleigh historic site

A volunteer works in an excavation pit at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site. Photo: Catherine Kozak

ROANOKE ISLAND – Archaeologists this week uncovered new evidence of the late 16the English activity of the century near the reconstructed earthworks at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, although the finds – mostly fragments and shadows in the layers of earth – are additional details that will inform the meticulous efforts of the First Colony Foundation to rebuild an important scientific laboratory discovered decades ago.

“It is a disentangling of the evidence of all these excavations”, explained Wednesday Eric Klingelhofer, co-director of the foundation, while taking a break under the trees in the delimited zone of excavation.

The excavations, held from September 15 to 24, were carried out as part of the foundation’s partnership with the National Park Service. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act permit is for a period of one year, allowing flexibility if the team has to return for additional work.

So far, artifacts found in current excavations include shards of jars of Iberian olives commonly found on ships in the 1600s, a gun flint, and a piece of what may have been part of the analysis equipment used in the laboratory.

In earlier excavations by the park service, the original location of the earthworks, which today resemble a square of grass-covered walls, was determined and later reconstructed. But it seems very likely that the earthworks were not a fort, but rather a protective enclosure for a long sought after metal workshop built nearby.

As part of the Roanoke Voyages of 1584-1587, English explorers and soldiers came to Roanoke Island for varying periods of time, up to and including the famous “Lost Colony,” a colony of 117 men, women and children who mysteriously disappeared after being the last to be seen in August 1587.

First Colony Foundation archaeologists Eric Deetz, left, site director, and foundation co-director Eric Klingelhofer discuss the site on Wednesday.  Photo: Catherine Kozak
First Colony Foundation archaeologists Eric Deetz, left, site director, and foundation co-director Eric Klingelhofer discuss the site on Wednesday. Photo: Catherine Kozak

In the early 1990s, Klingelhofer and his colleague the foundation’s vice president of research, Nick Luccketti, worked with archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume, who died in 2017, on a project for the Virginia Company Foundation, according to the First Colony Foundation website. The team had found near the earthworks the 1585-86 laboratory of scientist Thomas Harriot and metallurgist Joachim Gans, who worked with copper and other materials. Other nearby explorations have found evidence of charcoal making and a brick kiln, as well as 16e English artifacts of the century.

“Remember this is a construction site,” Klingelhofer said. “No one lived here.”

Seeking to reconstruct the workshop, he said the intention is to recreate it on paper by gathering evidence, analyzing soil characteristics and comparing them to what has been found in the past. A report on the work should be completed by the end of the year, he added.

In addition to the foundation which draws on donations and grants, the project, which has been delayed for nearly two years due to the pandemic, has been supported by in-kind contributions from volunteers, equipment and services from the park service staff.

“We’re looking for the outside of things, whether it’s a fence fence or a ditch,” Klingelhofer explained. “Finding a ditch is good, but we want to know where it ended.”

In the two excavated units, located across the path in front of the earthworks, a large amount of disturbance was revealed, said Eric Deetz, site manager and research associate at the foundation.

“We dug deeper than we expected to find (material from) the Fort Raleigh period,” he said.

As you might expect, the hole was filled with large chunks of asphalt with aggregate, he said.

Years before it became a national park, Deetz said the area had quite a bit of “F-Troop” style commercial infrastructure which was later removed. But a lot of work in archeology is a process of elimination.

In addition to looking for artifacts, the dig’s mission is to track features – “essentially, an artifact that isn’t portable,” Deetz said – that are evident in the ground.

“One of the reasons we chose these two areas is that they are areas that have never been excavated before,” he said, adding that work had already been carried out in some areas. adjacent units.

Deetz said more work is planned to ground check for anomalies detected earlier in the general earthworks area and to perform “shovel tests” in a few places of interest in the woods by the earthworks.

Archaeologist Eric Deetz measures inside one of the site's two pits, assisted by volunteer archaeologist from the Rachel Boyd Foundation.  Photo: Catherine Kozak
Archaeologist Eric Deetz measures inside one of the site’s two pits, assisted by volunteer archaeologist from the Rachel Boyd Foundation. Photo: Catherine Kozak

While the excavations are not specifically looking for evidence of the disappeared colony of 1587 or members of the lost colony, the public, who have been invited to the site by the park service via social media posts, seems keenly interested. , Deetz said.

“Oh my word, that has been crazy,” he said, adding that he meant that in a good way. “We received a lot of people. Some of the people who are here for the week have come several times.

In addition to members of the archeology team, volunteers and park rangers helped answer many questions from observers, he said.

“So it’s been a really good coalition,” Deetz said. “Engagement with the public is always taken into account – it’s part of the whole project. “

Indeed, the number of visitors making the effort to watch people scratch and sift through the dirt speaks volumes about the public’s fascination with the story of the lost colony, often called the country’s oldest mystery.

But since the foundation was founded in 2005 by Klingelhofer, Luccketti, and other professional archaeologists, the mission has been to explore archeology related to all of Roanoke’s voyages, not just the Lost Colony.

Participants see the excavation site on Wednesday.  Photo: Catherine Kozak
Participants see the excavation site on Wednesday. Photo: Catherine Kozak

Klingelhofer said that between him and Luccketti, who was part of the team that discovered Jamestown, they have 100 years of archaeological experience.

“Everything we do is in accordance with scientific methods,” said Klingelhofer. “It’s peer-reviewed and our artifacts are all scrutinized very carefully by specialists in North America and England. “

As to the precise location of the Lost Colony colony – still an unsolved mystery – with any luck, the patient work involved in ice speed archeology may still pay off, Klingelhofer said.

“We look forward to using our past and ongoing survey work in the park to locate the settlement and Ralph Lane Fort, which was adjacent to the settlement,” he said. “While it is very likely that erosion has removed parts of the site, we expect that there will be enough left to dig. “


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