An English rescue team arrived on Roanoke in 1590, but found only a single word carved in a tree by the abandoned town, as depicted in this 19th century illustration. Archaeologists hope to pinpoint the site of the long-elusive town.

SARIN IMAGES/GRANGER

Archaeologists start a new hunt for the fabled Lost Colony of the New World

ROANOKE ISLAND IN NORTH CAROLINA—In 1587, more than 100 men, women, and children settled on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina. War with Spain prevented speedy resupply of the colony—the first English settlement in the New World, backed by Elizabethan courtier Sir Walter Raleigh. When a rescue mission arrived 3 years later, the town was abandoned and the colonists had vanished.

What is commonly called the Lost Colony has captured the imagination of generations of professional and amateur sleuths, but the colonists' fate is not the only mystery. Despite more than a century of digging, no trace has been found of the colonists' town—only the remains of a small workshop and an earthen fort that may have been built later, according to a study to be published this year. Now, after a long hiatus, archaeologists plan to resume digging this fall. "I firmly believe that our program of re-excavation will provide answers to the vexing questions that past fieldwork has left us," says archaeologist Eric Klingelhofer, vice president for research at the nonprofit First Colony Foundation in Durham, North Carolina.

The first colonists arrived in 1585, when a voyage from England landed more than 100 men here, among them a science team including Joachim Gans, a metallurgist from Prague and the first known practicing Jew in the Americas. According to eyewitness accounts, the colonists built a substantial town on the island's north end. Gans built a small lab where he worked with scientist Thomas Harriot. After the English assassinated a local Native American leader, however, they faced hostility. After less than a year, they abandoned Roanoke and returned to England.

A second wave of colonists, including women and children, arrived in 1587 and rebuilt the decaying settlement. Their governor, artist John White, returned to England for supplies and more settlers, but war with Spain delayed him in England for 3 years. When he returned here in 1590, he found the town deserted.

By the time President James Monroe paid a visit in 1819, all that remained was the outline of an earthen fort, presumed to have been built by the 1585 all-male colony. Digs near the earthwork in the 1890s and 1940s yielded little. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS) subsequently reconstructed the earthen mound, forming the centerpiece of today's Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Then in the 1990s, archaeologists led by Ivor Noël Hume of The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Virginia uncovered remains of what archaeologists agree was the workshop where Gans tested rocks for precious metals and Harriot studied plants with medicinal properties, such as tobacco. Crucibles and pharmaceutical jars littered the floor, along with bits of brick from a special furnace. The layout closely resembled those in 16th century woodcuts of German alchemical workshops.

The 16th century colonists mapped North Carolina’s coastline but didn’t mark exactly where their town was located, leaving a 400-year-old mystery behind.

Theodor de Bry/Wikimedia Commons

In later digs Noël Hume determined that the ditch alongside the earthwork cuts across the workshop—suggesting the fort was built after the lab and possibly wasn't even Elizabethan. NPS refused to publish these controversial results, and Noël Hume died in 2017. But the foundation intends to publish his paper in coming months.

The foundation is also gearing up for a series of new digs. In September, archaeologists will re-excavate parts of the workshop, seeking clues to its size and precise design. In October, foundation and NPS archaeologists will excavate along nearby bluffs that are rapidly eroding. They are applying new dating methods to sand around a post hole near the shoreline. And after a century of work, they know which areas to rule out, such as by the fort, Klingelhofer says. He's confident the extensive new excavations will be more successful, and is eyeing more sites for 2019 digs.

But geologists think the settlement has vanished. Recent studies suggest that shifting currents and rising waters inundated the site in the past couple of centuries, says geologist J. P. Walsh of the University of North Carolina in nearby Wanchese. On a recent research trip into Albemarle Sound off Roanoke to collect cores, he pointed to a depth finder that revealed perilously shallow water. "This was all land back then," he shouted over the engine. He estimates the island's north end has lost about 750 meters in the past 4 centuries, and that strong currents and hurricanes buried any artifacts.

Klingelhofer rejects that idea, saying the loss of land "is more likely to have come since the last ice age" rather than after 1585. Guy Prentice, an archaeologist from NPS's Southeast Archeological Center in Tallahassee, agrees. "If you look at the maps from the 1700s, the island's geography has not changed much. … I just don't buy that a couple of thousand yards are gone." They both note that the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, founded a couple of decades after Roanoke, was long thought to have eroded away. But archaeologists discovered it in the 1990s and have gathered a wealth of artifacts.

All the scientists, however, concur that today's rising seas are swiftly wearing away Roanoke's northern end. Klingelhofer feels urgency to locate the town "before coastal erosion removes all traces." But if history has anything to teach, it is that Roanoke will not readily reveal its secrets.