Search for America's "Lost Colony" Gets New Boost

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Watts and his divers intend to check all of the sites, but so far they haven't found anything from the 16th century. Still he's not discouraged.

"I don't think for a minute that all the evidence [from the English colonists] has been discovered," Watts said.

"It's here somewhere. If we're able to start and continue our effort annually, eliminate the possibilities one by one, it's inevitable that we're going to blunder into some evidence that puts us on the trail."

What Happened?

England actually made two failed attempts to plant a colony on Roanoke Island.

In July 1585 more than a hundred English settlers backed by Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I launched the colonization effort. The first group included Thomas Hariot, a scientist who set up the New World's first scientific laboratory.

But relations soured with the Native Americans in the area, and when Sir Francis Drake's fleet arrived at Roanoke Island in the summer of 1586, the colonists decided to return to England with him.

A second colony of 116 people arrived at Roanoke Island in August 1587. This is the group that disappeared virtually without a trace.

Amateur and professional archaeologists have been searching for artifacts since the 17th century.

The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site now protects at least part of the area occupied by the colonists, and several professional excavations have been done in the park since the 1940s.

The earlier excavations uncovered artifacts undoubtedly left behind by the colonists, including the site of Hariot's laboratory.

But the site of the village—and conclusive evidence about the fate of the colonists—has eluded historians and archaeologists.

Race Against Time

In 1982 Phil Evans, a student working at the Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, found the remains of an old well thought to be from the 16th century. But Evans made the discovery in the waters of Roanoke Sound, an indication of possible erosion since the time of the colony.

Evans, now an attorney in Durham, North Carolina, helped establish the First Colony Foundation to raise money for renewed exploration and excavations on Roanoke Island. The foundation has made an agreement with the U.S. National Park Service to search for artifacts.

But the archaeologists are now racing against more than erosion. New upscale housing developments in Manteo are claiming more land.

"If [the village site] is not on Park Service land, the increased pressure of development is a serious threat," said Luccketti, the Virginia archaeologist. "We have to try to find [the village site] ahead of development."

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