Site Update: Since We Left
by Eric Deetz
Like Murphy's law, there are a few ironic truths in archaeology. One is that whatever you are looking for is under the back dirt pile. Another is that the biggest find is made on the last day — or if the excavation is continuing — right after you leave. This is exactly what happened to Time Team America at Fort Raleigh.
Two days after we left, the archaeologists from the First Colony Foundation made a spectacular find: two small pit features. In one they found white glass beads and in the other small square copper plates that had been strung together at one time. The glass beads were definitely made in Europe. The copper squares on the other hand could be native or European origin, which can be determined with further testing in the post-excavation phase. The chemical signature of European copper is different than that of North American copper so it is possible to determine the source of the squares found at Fort Raleigh. If the copper squares do end up being European, it may be an important clue to the location of the Fort and would provide a link between the Roanoke colonists and the Jamestown colony established twenty years later.
Thomas Harriot, one of the original group of Englishmen to come to Roanoke, was one of the great thinkers of his generation. Much of what he learned and later published in 1588 was used by English adventurers who would come to the Americas. One of his key observations was the value that the local Native Americans put on copper. The closest source for American copper was west of the Blue Ridge Mountains more than 200 miles to the west. For the Indians living on the eastern seaboard, any copper they had was acquired through well-established trade routes from the west.
The English could not have known of the value copper had in America at the time of their first attempt at a colony in 1585. Among other things, the English were looking for precious metals, so it is more likely that any copper found in association with the first colony would be native copper collected to assay or test for silver or gold content. Were the copper squares native copper collected or traded for by the first wave of English planters or were they made of European copper brought to Roanoke by the second group of colonists to trade to the local Indians?
Thanks in large part to the writings of Thomas Harriot, the English that established the fort at Jamestown in 1607 knew that copper was a valuable trade item to bring to North America. This worked to the advantage of the English. Copper was relatively cheap in Europe and yet was highly prized by the Indian groups along the eastern seaboard. The trade in copper figured largely in the eventual success of the Jamestown Colony. So while the colony at Roanoke Island did not succeed, the lessons learned there were instrumental in the planning and success of later colonies.