Digging Up The U.S.

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CROUCHED IN an L-shaped pit, a foot below the surface of the forest floor, John Ehrenhard, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, is contemplating a piece of charred wood. The sandy soil around the base of what appears to have once been a post has been carefully scraped away, and Ehrenhard, a small, lithe man wearing a colorful bandanna over his longish hair, seems ready to pounce. In the autumn sunlight filtering through a canopy of loblolly pines and live oaks hung with Spanish moss, he casts an ephemeral shadow on the ground. Not far away, just beyond the trees but obscured from view, is the beach where, nearly four hundred years ago, the first English settlers of the New World came ashore.

For the past few months, Ehrenhard and a team of archaeologists have been searching for the so-called lost colony of Sir Walter Raleigh here on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina. Using some of the most advanced technology available—proton magnetometers, soil-resistivity meters, and computer-generated contour maps—as well as some of the most primitive—shovels, trowels, and bare hands—they are hoping to unearth new clues about this mysterious episode of American history.

In 1585, and then again in 1587, Raleigh, who had received a patent from Queen Elizabeth to explore and colonize the New World, sponsored two ill-fated expeditions to Roanoke. The first ended in failure when the colonists, unable to fend for themselves, abandoned their settlement on the northern end of the island and returned to England. The second fared even worse. The entire colony—more than one hundred men, women, and children (including Virginia Dare, the first English baby born in America)—vanished without a trace. A search party sent out from England in 1590 found only the mysterious word CROATOAN carved on a post near the entrance to the palisaded fort. Although the remains of the fort have since been located (a full reconstruction was done in the late 1940s), no evidence of the settlement where the colonists actually lived has ever been found. And to this day historians have only been able to conjecture about the fate that befell them.

Now, on this November afternoon, as the current phase of his search draws to a close and his assistants prepare to backfill the open pit for the winter months, Ehrenhard believes he has hit pay dirt. “We have a structure here,” he says excitedly, pointing at the charred wooden post. “There’s no doubt about it. All we have to do is spend some time figuring out what it is.”

There is, of course, no structure visible to the human eye—just a piece of wood in the ground and, a few inches away, some tiny lumps in the soil. The lumps, Ehrenhard thinks, are the oxidized remains of nailheads. If his hunch is correct, the two features taken together may represent what is left of a doorway—a doorway that could lead him back into the sixteenth-century settlement that once stood on this site.

It is with such flimsy evidence that much archaeological interpretation begins. But from a single artifact, like this piece of charred wood, whole structures can be built. Just as recent scientific advances led Ehrenhard to this site—the computer-generated maps spread out on the hood of a truck parked nearby all point to the presence of “anomalies,” or deviations in magnetic and soil-resistivity readings in the area—so, too, new techniques of analysis may enable him to come away with more than simply a burnt stick.

“The first thing we’ll do,” he says, wrapping a specimen in tinfoil, “is determine what kind of wood this is to see whether it’s a legitimate building material. Then we’ll have it radiocarbonized. There’s a new correlation curve that can tell you with a high degree of accuracy the range of years in which a tree was cut down.”

Ehrenhard rises from his crouch and walks through the imaginary doorway. “From the size of the post,” he continues, “and the spacing between it and other pestholes we’ve found, we can begin to make some assumptions about the weight and size of whatever structure may have been here. By looking at the hole around the post, we’ll be able to tell whether it was sawed flat or sharpened to a point, which, in turn, might tell us something about what kinds of tools these people were using and their methods of construction. And by examining the debris that may have accumulated in the posthole—things like seeds, fish scales, and pollen samples, which we can recover by flotation back in the lab—we may be able to learn a few things about local vegetation and diet.”