Archaeologist promises to return Croatan ring

The Associated Press, September 3, 2002


    Buxton, N.C. - An archaeologist who helped undercover the gold ring of a 16th century English nobleman trying to establish a colony on the Outer Banks has taken the ring and other artifacts to Florida.

    Discovery of the 10-carat gold ring suggests there was contact between the Indian civilization based at Croatan and leaders among the English explorers trying to found a colony on the North Carolina barrier islands.

    When Sir Walter Raleigh's Lost Colony -- a group of 117 men, women and children -- disappeared from Roanoke Island in 1587, the only clue of their whereabouts was the word, "Croatoan," carved into a tree near the fort. Historians have never determined if members of the 2-year-old colony fled to the Indian town about 50 miles away.

    David Phelps, who headed the team exploring the site in the modern-day town of Buxton, took the ring to Florida when he moved there two years ago. He retired as director of the East Carolina University Archaeology Office in 1996 but has remained affiliated with the school. He also kept a flintlock, a pipe, and some coins, beads and bone rings for further research, said Charles Ewen, director of the Phelps Archaeology Lab and professor in ECU's anthropology department.

    One worry is that if Phelps, 73, dies before returning the ring, it could get caught up in any dispute over his estate.

    "They'll get them back," Phelps promised.

    But Phelps has yet to submit to ECU statements that document the ownership of the artifacts, field reports describing the dig and what was recovered, and notes and photographs from five years of exploration of Croatan, the ancient capital of the only Indian community that lived permanently on the Outer Banks, Ewen said.

    Ewen said he sent Phelps forms months ago to document the artifacts and his archaeological work after thousands of pieces of pottery and shell midden were uncovered in Buxton in 1993 after Hurricane Emily.

    "I don't think he's being obstructionist," Ewen said. "He just doesn't get around to these kind of things."

    Keats Sparrow, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University, said he has no doubt about Phelps' integrity or cooperation. But the school is updating its curation guidelines to better track artifacts in its care.

    "In my experience in working with Dr. Phelps, certainly I think he has nothing but scholarly interest in this enterprise," Sparrow said.

    Phelps said all of the several thousand artifacts collected from the site are cataloged and curated at ECU "and always have been." A setback caused by cataract surgery is now over, he said, and he expects to return the artifacts in his possession after he returns to Buxton for more digs in May.

    The ring is being kept in a safe deposit box, he said.

    "I have that because I'm doing the final drawing and study of it," he said.

    More than $25,000 of the cost of the excavations was raised by private donors in Greenville and the Outer Banks, and they would like to see the product of their investments returned to be exhibited on the Outer Banks, said Fred Willard, director of the Lost Colony Center for Science and Research.

    "If anything happens to Dr. Phelps, those artifacts are gone," he said.

    The ring's face depicts a prancing lion, a symbol of English authority that a nobleman would wear. Discovered in October 1998 under 4 feet of sand at the Croatan site, the ring's probable owner was narrowed down to two men with the surname of Kendall who were known to have participated in the 1585-87 Roanoke Voyages.

    Abraham Kendall was a shipmaster on a 1586 expedition led by Sir Francis Drake, but he stayed on Roanoke Island for only about three days; a Master Kendall traveled to the Outer Banks with the 1585 Ralph Lane expedition, which stayed 11 months.

    It is known that Lane sent 20 people to Croatan for a month, so Master Kendall -- his first name is not known -- is viewed as the more likely Kendall to have lost his ring at Croatan.


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