Buxton Crew Digs Up Possible Lost Colony Link
Gold Signet Ring Could Support Theory of a Trek to Hatteras
The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, VA, October 14, 1998
Written by Catherine Kozak, Staff Writer
Buxton - A 16th century gold signet ring unearthed last week offers breathtaking new clues to the 400-year-old mystery of the Lost Colony, a veteran archaeologist said Tuesday. The ring is the most compelling evidence yet found connecting the Roanoke Island settlements of 1585 and 1587 to the Croatoan chiefdom 50 miles away on Hatteras Island. Its face depicts a lion, a symbol of English authority that would typically be worn by a nobleman.
Sifted from sand taken from 4 feet down in an archaeological excavation pit, the ring ranks first among the many discoveries that David Phelps has made during his 40 year career. "This is the first direct tie-in we'd had with the Roanoke colonies," the 69-year-old director of the East Carolina University Coastal Archaeology Office said, his voice wavering with excitement. "The chances of this type of ring being in trade networks after colonization is very slim. So its best placement in time is in the 1580's."
"This doesn't necessarily mean the Lost Colony was here - but this begins to authenticate that." Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement on Roanoke Island - 112 men, women and children - disappeared without a trace after 1587. Historians and scholars have long debated what happened, but many believe at least some colonists moved about 50 miles south to the Native American capital on Hatteras Island, as the message "CROATOAN" on a fence post hinted. Croatoan was the name of the village.
"It is a great find about the Roanoke colonies," said Lebame Houston, an Elizabethan scholar from Manteo. "It is something English that is personal that is in Croatoan." The ring face, covered with a gray-brown patina, depicts a side view of a lion standing on three legs with a front paw raised, as if it's prancing. Althought the shank of the 10-carat gold ring was broken, it is in very good condition, Phelps said. And it looked mighty good to the team when Phelps conveyed what they had found. "Everybody was screaming and excited, let's put it that way," he said with a broad smile.
Phelps and his team of experts, students and local volunteers resumed work on the "The Croatoan Project" early this week. The four week project, funded by a $15,580 grant awarded by The Richard J. Reynolds III and Marie M. Reynolds Foundation, allows for continued exploration of the ancient captial of the Croatoan chiefdom, the only Native American society to live permanently on the Outer Banks. The site spans a half-mile area over three ancient dunes.
Last year's excavation uncovered three hearths, copper and brass pieces and lead droppings from bullets - findings that indicated for the first time that the English could have lived among the Indians. The ring provides a substantial clue that could guide scholars in new directions. So far, historical information about the colonists has been pieced together from fragments of data. But any information about the failed English attempts to colonize America in 1585 and 1587 possibly can tie in with what has been learned about the first successful colony at Jamestown in 1607.
"Connection and context is what makes it important," Beverly "Bly" Straube, curator for Jamestown Rediscovery, said of the find. "There's a potential to find answers to the Lost Colony. It's like a detective story. Gold rings don't show up every day - they really don't. Two signet rings found in Jamestown explorations were brass and were more common," she said.
Phelps has asked experts to trace the origin of the lion crest, which could eventually help identifiy the ring's owner. "A crest was just as personal then as a fingerprint is today." Houston said. "The crest was commonly used on signet rings, which were worn in part to stamp the wearer's identity on wax seals. The coat of arms had to be granted by the college of arms, so theoretically, it is traceable," Houston said. "But the records may have disappeared, which could make tracking the origin of the crest more difficult."
Arms were granted only to those who had money, property, and credibility in a community. Since the ring was gold, it was likely worn by a gentleman - or was given on the authority of a gentleman - a category that Houston said would fit about 50 colonists and explorers on Roanoke Island. Another possibility is that the ring was given to Manteo, the son of the ruler of Croatoan. The English honored Manteo with the title "Lord of the Roanoke and Dasemunkepeuc," but Houston said there was no evidence that he was ever given anything but the title.
Wayne Dough, curator of the Outer Banks History Center, cautioned the exuberant not to jump to conclusions on the historic importance of the ring. "It does little more than confirm what has already been known," Dough said. "This is not necessarily a clue to the ultimate fate of the Lost Colony. To those who think that this is something that points clearly to one or another explanation of what happened to the 'lost colonists' - I'd breathe deeply. This ain't it."