August 17, 2009

Fort Raleigh in Time Team America

Time Team America: Fort Raleigh

By K. Kris HirstThis week, the much-anticipated Time Team America begins its premiere season on PBS, five weeks over the summer during which public television viewers will get a first-hand look at high-tech archaeology in the United States.

The first program, airing the evening of Wednesday July 8th (8 pm EDT, check local listings), features ongoing investigations at Fort Raleigh, North Carolina, the site of the first English colony in the American continents. The site is perhaps more famously known as the Lost Colony of Roanoke Island, and its legend about Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas, and the mysterious disappearance of the colony has inspired untold numbers of American children into learning about the past.

Time Team and Fort Raleigh

Time Team America's hour long video on Fort Raleigh documents three days of excavations, assisted by geophysical survey. The test area is located at an area of the island that had been identified as containing historic artifacts of the right age about 10 years ago. Two large trenches are excavated over the three days in this area, opened using a backhoe to strip off the wind-blown sand believed to have been deposited on the area after the American Revolution.
From the official PBS website:

Fort Raleigh, North CarolinaIt is one of the oldest mysteries in American history: What happened to the "Lost Colony" of Fort Raleigh? In 1587 the English sent a group of hardy, hopeful colonists to make a go of it in the New World. But when English ships returned with supplies just three years later, they found the settlement empty and the colonists gone. Only one clue was left behind: the word "Croatoan" carved in the gatepost of their fort. To this day, the fate of the colonists and the location of the original settlement remain a mystery. Time Team America travels to Roanoke Island to look for evidence of the colony, find out what it looked like, and learn what life might have been like for those first English colonists.Historical Background

Why We Went ThereTime Team could not have picked a better site for its maiden voyage in the New World. Both the story of Britain's first attempt at American colonization and one of the oldest unsolved mysteries in American history, the location of the Lost Colony of Roanoke is truly one question that only archaeology can answer. But finding the Lost Colony is no small task. Over the last 400 years, the fragile footprint left by the vanished colonists has become even harder to find. In that time, the site has been host to all manner of disturbances, namely: various military garrisons, farmers, the Civil War, treasure hunters, enthusiastic re-constructionists, a movie set, thespians, erosion, dune formation, and finally, modern archaeologists. As a result, the site of the Lost Colony has remained hidden. Like the proverbial needle in a haystack, the traces of this short-lived and ephemeral settlement have continued to elude even the best of efforts.Time Team America: Fort Raleigh, North Carolina [full episode]

Site Update:  Since We Left

Site Update:  Final Thoughts

Comment:  Some thoughts on the information the show imparted:

  • As usual, the Indians initially greeted, fed, and helped the English settlers.

  • John White came with the first group of settlers as an artist and returned the second time as Fort Raleigh's governor.

  • Good relations with the Indians ended when the settlers burned their village and crops after a silver chalice went missing. The archaeologists dryly note that the settlers may not have realized this would upset the Indians.

  • The Indians thought the English were spreading disease by firing magic bullets.

  • The English brought blue beads from Venice to trade. The Indians liked them "because they thought they were being given a piece of the sky."

  • The mystery...solved?

    Time Team America doesn't seem to think there's much mystery about what happened to the "lost colony." As the historians explain it:

    The colonists sent their leader White to England for supplies. It took White three years to return. When he arrived, the colonists had vanished and the settlement was deserted. His daughter and his newly born granddaughter were among the missing.

    The settlers had said they'd leave White a sign if they decided to moved the camp. They carved the fragment "Cro" on a tree by the water and the word "Croatoan" on the gatepost of the settlement's palisade. They were supposed to add a cross if there was danger, but White didn't find one.

    As the historians put it, they left voluntarily. That was the plan all along. Finding them missing wasn't discouraging to White, but the ship's captain wouldn't stay any longer. White never got a chance to look for his fellow colonists.

    The historians believe the colonists dismantled some of the structures and took the wooden planks along with their heavy guns. The best guess is they went 50 miles up Albemarle Sound to the meeting point of the Chowan and Roanoke Rivers. The location had fresh water and was close to friendly Indians, so they had a better chance to survive there.


    I believe Time Team America has produced five episodes so far. Two are about Indians directly and two, including Fort Raleigh, are about them indirectly. I'm sure the archaeologists could find plenty of non-Indian sites to explore, so it's nice that they're focusing their attention on Indians.

    Anyway, Time Team America is a typical Nova-style documentary from PBS. Not stunning, but solid and informative. Worth watching for people interested in archaeology.

    For more on Roanoke, see:

    Roanoke play must go on
    Roanoke movie on Sci-Fi Channel
    Satirical look at Roanoke

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