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Unearthing Clues to Lost Worlds:
An archaeological dig on the Outer Banks of North Carolina reveals
evidence of the Croatan Indians and possible links to the Lost Colony

by Nancy Gray

A worker displays a tooth uncovered in a sifter as other volunteers search for more artifacts
at one of the open excavation sites on the Croatan Project in Buxton, North Carolina.

Summer Dig: David Phelps directs an archaeological dig on North Carolina's Outer Banks and uncovers history.

Dr. David Phelps, a retired professor of archaeology at East Carolina University, has a passion for seeking answers to questions that have lingered for centuries, for uncovering clues to mysteries that have puzzled generations, for digging in 350-year-old dirt. During a summer when Mars mania has permeated our planet, and dinosaurs from lost worlds ruled at the box office, Phelps led an unlikely group of modern-day explorers beneath the surface of the Outer Banks on a diligent search for clues of past civilizations. The mostly volunteer crew of students and local residents ranged in age from 18 to 80, but they shared a penchant for unearthing the past —for rediscovering lost worlds. This excavation, on a coastal sandy ridge of Hatteras Island, is part of the "Croatan Project" — a search for "valuable contextual evidence of the ancient Croatan society," according to Phelps, who now heads the Coastal Archaeology Office, a part of the Institute for Historical and Cultural Research at ECU. The site, a half-mile long area covered by a maritime forest of wind-sculpted live oaks and dotted with summer cottages, also may figure prominently in one of America’s oldest mysteries — the fate of the "Lost Colony."

The island designated "Croatoan" (modern spelling Croatan) on English settler John White’s 1586 map of the North Carolina coast was the homeland of the Carolina Algonkian society of the same name. Today, Croatan includes the southern part of Hatteras Island from Buxton to Hatteras Village and adjacent Ocracoke Island. To date, eight sites on Hatteras Island have been identified as belonging to the Colington phase, the name given to the Carolina Algonkian culture in the period from AD 800 to AD 1650, the time of permanent European colonization of the New World.

Two copper farthings and lead shot are among the English
artifacts uncovered in the dig on Hatteras Island.

Amazingly, a few of these sites are still wholly or partially intact below the earth’s surface. The current excavation site — along Cape Creek in what is now Buxton — is thought to be the capital of the Croatan Indians, one of the most prominent tribes of the Carolina Algonkians. "This is the most important archaeological site on the Outer Banks, and one of the most significant in the mid-Atlantic coastal region," said Phelps as he stood shoulder-deep in this special earth. "The potential of the sites on this island is really amazing for determining how native people of this area lived."

The Croatans played an important role in the period of initial English contact and colonization (1584-1587) in the New World. The most famous Croatan is Manteo, whose mother was queen of the chiefdom. By all accounts, Manteo was a friend to the early English settlers. He traveled to England with Philip Amadas in 1584, and later returned with a group of English settlers to help establish Sir Walter Raleigh’s first colony in America.

Manteo’s friendship with these early settlers is one reason many affiliated with this dig are speculating and secretly hoping the Buxton site also may reveal clues to the fate of the Lost Colony.

The Lost Colony and its 16th century settlement site on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island (approximately 50 miles north of Buxton) has been a point of study for historians and archaeologists for years. This group of more than 100 men, women and children was England’s second attempt at colonization in the New World. Shortly after their arrival in 1587, John White, governor of the settlement, was forced back to England for supplies. Because England was at war with Spain, White could not return to the island for three years. When he did, he found the settlement deserted and the word CROATOAN carved on a tree at the site’s entrance. Before White left his colonists, they had agreed they would carve a message on a tree if they had to leave the island. The message would include the name of the place to which they moved and a cross above the name if they were in danger. White found no cross.

"Many historians and archaeologists believe the message was intended to direct White to the friendly Indians at Croatoan — now known as Hatteras," according to Dr. E. Thomson Shields Jr., associate professor of English at ECU and a scholar of early American literature. "Another accepted theory is they traveled north to Chesapeake Bay," he said.

"To date, there is no conclusive evidence either way. Before White could search for the colonists a big storm came up and blew his ship out into the Atlantic. He was forced to return to England without ever knowing what happened to them," Shields said. "And, 400 years later, we still don’t know."

"Everybody who lives here has a theory about what happened to the Lost Colony," said Bob Heyl, a retired mechanical engineer who is one of several local volunteers working at the Buxton site. "And, secretly, in everybody’s heart, there’s a hope that we’ll find something to link them here," he confided as he carefully poured a bucket of 300-400-year-old dirt through a sifter he constructed for this dig.

Phelps said it is unlikely the entire colony went to either destination. "What probably happened is some of them went north to Chesapeake and some came here," he said matter-of-factly. "We know from historical writings there were Croatans with blue eyes and gray eyes, which would indicate an integration with the English."

As far as finding a conclusive link, Phelps said, "It depends on what’s left behind and whether or not we find it." Finding what’s left behind is "a slow, painstaking process" that Phelps has made his life’s work. In 1996, after 26 years as a professor at ECU, Phelps left the classroom; but he did not leave teaching. He simply took his classroom outdoors, permanently. "Analyzing layers of soil is the toughest thing for an archaeologist to do and to teach. You can’t really teach that in the classroom; it’s something you just have to do. Out here we shave away the earth, layer by layer to reveal what’s below," he said watching a volunteer gently scrape away a layer of dirt with a trowel that itself had been painstakingly customized — ground down to make it flatter and sharper.

Phelps has spent much of his life sifting the coastal soil of the Outer Banks and eastern North Carolina, guiding various volunteers and students who share his penchant for uncovering history — even inspiring some to make archaeology their life’s work as well.

Charles Heath, an ECU graduate student in anthropology and the assistant director of the excavation in Buxton, was a businessman before he decided to start getting his hands dirty for a living. "I had a degree in business administration and a good job," he said sweeping dirt into a dustpan and dumping it into a bucket to be sifted. "But as an undergrad, I had taken a class from Dr. Phelps and did some work in the field and when I looked back on that experience I knew that’s what I really wanted to do," he said, "So, now I’m back at ECU getting a master’s in anthropology."

Volunteer Fred Williard, a Buxton resident, is also taking anthropology courses at ECU in preparation for a possible post-retirement career. It was Williard and his friend Barbara Midgett, also a Buxton resident and senior citizen volunteer, who first discovered artifacts on the current site shortly after Hurricane Emily hit the island in 1993.

"We went for a walk after Emily to survey the damage," Midgett said, pointing just beyond her home and the dig site. "We saw lots of things — kayak paddles, an upended well pump and then all along Cape Creek we saw lots of pieces of pottery. It looked like it had just been belched out of the side of the hill," she remembered.

Williard and Midgett also found bones and pieces of clay pipe. They contacted ECU’s Coastal Archaeology Office and that’s when Phelps got involved. Phelps was familiar with the site, having tested it in 1983 as part of America’s 400th Anniversary Research Project. He said it was first recorded and tested by William Haag in 1956, as part of his survey of the North Carolina coast. At that time, Haag found intact deposits at the eastern end of the site next to Cape Creek and surface evidence elsewhere.

Charles Heath, a graduate student and assistant director on the project, dissects
post hole molds revealed at the Buxton site, while volunteer Bob Heyl looks on.

The area of Haag’s tests had been eroded by 1983 when Phelps first tested the site. Phelps’ tests confirmed that the buried stratum containing evidence of Croatan was "intact and rich in content." In 1993, Hurricane Emily was responsible for eroding the area of the 1983 tests and exposing more of the old stratum in other areas, where Williard and Midgett observed it. So far, the current Buxton excavation has produced a wealth of artifacts, both European and Native American. Pipe pieces, a pipe bowl found in one piece, gun flints, lead shot, pieces of wine bottles, pottery shards, shell beads, rolled copper and glass beads, and deer teeth were all uncovered from an area believed to have been a workshop in the 1650-1720 time period.

Engraving of the John White-Thomas Harriot map of Sir Walter Raleigh's Virginia,
1590. Today, this area is the coast of North Carolina (the top of the map is west).

At the site Catie Galloway, an ECU senior anthropology major and research assistant, pointed out the burnt red color of the soil in two separate side-by-side circles, about five feet deep, each around a raised middle area of darker soil. "You can tell there was fire burning here for an extended amount of time. It stains the soil," she said as she made note of the area in her workbook and instructed those scraping away soil in the pit to leave the raised area and go no deeper.

Phelps said he was fairly certain that this was a workshop area. "The color of the soil is very distinct. There was certainly intense fire here for a long period of time. The fact that there are two fire pits right next to each other would indicate a workshop area. Also, this accounts for the significant number of artifacts found in a relatively small area," he said as he pulled a tarp over the excavated workshop to keep it from drying out. "Once it dries out we can’t read the soil patterns," Phelps explained.

Among the more curious finds in the workshop area were at least eight tiny rings, possibly hollowed out of bird bone. "I’ve not seen anything like this," said Phelps, gently touching the rings cradled in the palm of his hand. "They were probably ornamental, but they are totally unusual."

(Above) Tiny rings, possibly hollowed from bird bone are among the more unusual artifacts uncovered.

(Below) Dr. Phelps examines objects which surface in a sifter, while discussing the findings.

More significant to Phelps were two coins — 22mm copper farthings — also uncovered in the workshop area. One coin, slightly smaller than a quarter, was whole with two tiny holes drilled at the top and bottom. The other was a half of a coin with one drilled hole. The holes indicate the coins were probably worn as jewelry.

"Because the coins are copper farthings this places them specifically in the 1670s. This helps us put the site right where we wanted it," Phelps said with a smile. In fact, most of what has been found is from the 1650-1729 period. More rare are artifacts of the late 1500s, which could provide a conclusive link to the Lost Colony. "The lead shot might be tied to the Lost Colony, but that has such a long range of history that we need something more diagnostic," Phelps said. "However," he added cautiously, "I do think this is the site where the colonists would have gone."

Among the surprising finds are a couple of peach pits. According to Phelps, they suggest the Croatans were trading with other Southeastern tribes or with the Spaniards, who introduced peaches to the Americas and were growing them on Florida plantations in the 1600s. One North Carolina historian has suggested the Spaniards had a trading post on the Roanoke River. Beneath the town’s midden — the highly concentrated area of trash and organic materials left behind by a civilization —were several "post molds." These are stains left in the soil where posts once stood.

Heath, the assistant director of the dig, pointed out the circular pattern of post holes in a particular area as he recorded them in a plot book. "By the pattern here, I’d say this was an area used either for smoking fish or for food storage," he observed. "It’s another piece of the puzzle," Heath said as he looked back and forth from the post molds in the pit to his to-scale drawing of them, "We often don’t know what we’ve got until after the actual digging is completed and we’re back in the lab. For every day of field work, we spend four or five in the lab."

Being part of such a painstaking process in today’s high-tech world — when pictures from other planets can be instantly beamed into our living rooms — might seem archaic. But putting together centuries-old puzzles and solving mysteries of past civilizations — using tools you might find in the kitchen drawer or garage — challenges these explorers like mountains and outer space do others.

As volunteer Barbara Midgett said, "When you really learn to look beneath the surface, it changes your whole perspective."

Back in the lab, research assistant Catie Galloway begins the arduous
task of sorting through the many samples brought in from the site.

Back on the ECU campus, in the lab that is named for him, Phelps examined the coins under a microscope. The surface of the complete coin was eroded, but on the half-coin the word CAROLUS was visible along with a partial bust of a male figure. Latin for Charles, the word Carolus means the coin was produced during the monarchy of Charles II, who ruled England from 1649 to 1685.

Source: The ECU Report - Vol. 28, No. 2 September 1997. Taylor-Slaughter Alumni Center, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC 27858-4353.

All photos by Cliff Hollis.

Copyright 2002
Carolina Algonkian Project, All Rights Reserved