After hundreds of years, the mystery of the Roanoke colonists may finally be lifting after a secret symbol was found on ancient map.
This image shows a map named "La Virginea Pars" painted by explorer John White between 1585-1586. The detail shows a patch stuck to the map which when enhanced with ultraviolet light shows a faint image that could be a clue to understanding what happened to the Roanoke settlement which disappeared after White sailed back to England.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Perhaps the best clue in more than 420 years to one of early America's most famous mysteries has just been revealed.
The remains of the so-called Lost Colony -- where more than 100 English colonists vanished from their North Carolina island outpost in the late 1500s -- could be sitting under an Arnold Palmer-designed golf course in Bertie County.
Theories abound about what happened to the Lost Colony ranging from sober scholarship to science fiction. Some historians believe that the colonists might have been absorbed into American Indian tribes. Other explanations point to darker fates, like disease, an attack by Spaniards or violence at the hands of Indians. The wild-eyed fringe hints at cannibalism and even alien abduction.
Now, researchers at the British Museum in London, acting at the request of a group of historians and archaeologists in North Carolina, reported Thursday that they have found a symbol hidden on an ancient map that could show where members of the English colony established on Roanoke Island in 1587 could have resettled after abandoning the coast: An inland fort.
Hint of dark arts?
The findings -- from a re-examination of the 16th-century coastal map using 21st-century techniques, including infrared light, X-ray spectroscopy and other imaging techniques -- bring into focus a puzzle that has long fed the feverish curiosity of historians, archaeologists and amateur sleuths.
And the findings point to new mysteries. The analysis suggests that the symbol marking the fort was deliberately hidden, perhaps to shield it from espionage in the spy-riddled English court. An even more tantalizing hint of dark arts tints the map: the possibility that invisible ink may have marked the site all along.
James Horn, vice president of research and historical interpretation at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, cautioned that the Lost Colony had not been found. But the findings do provide the clearest marker yet for future excavations. He said: "It's a pretty amazing piece of evidence from a source that has been staring us in the face all along."
The elaborate "La Virginea Pars" map -- unusually accurate for its time -- was created by members of Sir Walter Raleigh's Roanoke Colony expeditions of 1584-1590, the first attempt to establish an English Colony with civilians in the New World.
A startling discovery
Brent Lane, an adjunct professor of Heritage Education at the University of North Carolina Kenan Institute and a scholar with the First Colony Foundation, was studying a map made by the leader of the 1587 colony expedition, John White, when he became intrigued with two patches of paper pasted over small parts of it.
One of the patches was in an area that the settlers had explored, and where some historians had theorized was a likely spot for them to have moved.
The technique was normal for the time. When artists wanted to make alterations, they would paste on a patch and draw or paint over it. Still, Lane asked British Museum officials whether they had ever tried to determine what was under the patches. They hadn't.
When they put the map on a simple light table, which shined through the paper, they saw something startling. Under one patch was a large symbol that appeared to show the location of a fort. Raleigh planned a capital, the "Cittie of Raleigh," and Lane said that the symbol may show the planned location of that and the most likely place for the colonists to have moved.
The New York Times contributed to this report.