Unraveling a Mystery
The mystery of the Roanoke Island Lost Colony has fascinated people for the past 425 years. American school children are taught during elementary school that the only clue left by the colonists was the word “Croatoan” etched on a post. Numerous books and articles have been written and a visit to Manteo, North Carolina, will allow an opportunity to attend an outdoor play about the Lost Colonists and their disappearance.
In 1587 Sir Walter Raleigh sent a group of men, women, and children from England to the New World to create a colony. Led by John White, this group of people settled on North Carolina’s Roanoke Island on the Outer Banks. Governor John White returned to England for supplies, but was unable to rejoin the colony in a timely manner because of England’s war with Spain. He finally returned to Roanoke Island in 1590, but found that the colonists had disappeared. Unable to locate the colonists, he sailed back to England.
Recently new evidence, in the form of an old map, has been discovered. This evidence points to the relocation of the colonists to Bertie County, North Carolina, at the mouth of the Chowan River.
The history of the map is an interesting story in itself. Governor John White created a series of watercolors during his five voyages in the late sixteenth century that depicted the people, animals, plants, and maps of the New World. The purpose of these watercolors was to encourage financial support for colonization of the New World. It is unknown what initially happened to this set, but in 1788 the Earl of Charlemont purchased seventy-five of White’s watercolors mounted in an album. In 1865, the Charlemont family decided to sell the collection through Sotheby’s in London. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in the warehouse next to the auction house and the collection incurred water damage. The damage did not deter potential buyers and the collection was sold to Henry Stevens. Stevens had the watercolors rebound and then sold the collection to the British Museum in 1866. The collection still remains in the hands of British Museum (Ambers et al. 2012, 47.)
“La Virginea Pars”, a map of the east coast of North America (c. 1585-°©‐87) produced by the Elizabethan artist and gentleman, John White. (P&D 1906,0509.1.3), © Trustees of the British Museum
The British Museum’s website, britishmuseum.org, gives a fascinating history of this collection that includes conservation treatments and past exhibit locations. For instance, the collection was on loan to the North Carolina Museum of History in 1965, 1985, and 2007. Descriptions of conservation treatment that the watercolors received in 2003 are also summarized:
“Lifted from mount by slitting guards with a scalpel. Debris, adhesive and, where necessary old repairs, removed from edges of verso by applying a poultice of Culminal (nonionic cellulose ether), scraping with a Teflon spatula and swabbing with cotton wool moistened with tap water. Paper debris removed from recto with a scalpel. Tears repaired, skinned areas supported and losses infilled using Japanese paper and wheat starch paste. (Misaligned tear repositioned.) Infills retouched on recto using Winsor and Newton artist’s watercolours (organic,inorganic pigments,gum arabic). Humidified over capillary matting and Gore-Tex in a chamber. Pressed.”
During the conservation process of this collection, the conservators not only had to take into consideration the age of the collection, the material that was used in creating the watercolors, and the water damage from the 1865 fire, but also the “unknown” of the first two hundred years of its existence. These professionals could only guess at the possible scenarios that may have housed these watercolors during their first two centuries. These factors reinforced the reasoning behind using minimum intervention methods to conserve an artifact. Because of both the known and unknown deterioration factors, the conservators had to be careful not to use any methods that would further damage the pieces or prevent them from being analyzed by future scholars. It is because of the professionalism and education of previous conservators in treating White’s watercolors, that one of the pieces was able to be analyzed and possibly lead scholars to solving the mystery of the Lost Colony.
A transmitted light image of the symbol underlying the northern patch on “La Virginea Pars” by John White, produced by lighting it from below. (P&D 1906,0509.1.3 (detail), © Trustees of the British Museum
The First Colony Foundation (FCF), an organization created in 2004 to research the Roanoke Colonies, has been working with the British Museum to study the John White watercolors. In 2012, University of North Carolina professor and FCF scholar, Brent Lane was examining the La Virginea Pars, one of John White’s maps. White’s La Virginea Pars depicted the area from the Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout and had two patches adhered to it. Lane was curious about the area underneath the patches. Two conservators with the British Museum placed a light box under the map and it revealed some changes to the coastline and a distinct red and blue fort symbol. Using non-contact and non-destructive techniques, a team of conservators further examined the map. Microscopes, X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and Raman spectroscopy, determined that the spot under the second patch was the possible location of the Lost Colony (Ambers et al. 2012, 47.)
The 350th anniversary of the establishment of the Roanoke Colony was held on August 18, 1937, on Roanoke Island. President F.D. Roosevelt attended the celebration and made a prediction that “someday someone would find evidence of the Lost Colony’s fate” (LaVere, 265). It is exciting to think that because of careful conservation practices of an old map, Roosevelt’s prediction, almost eighty years ago, may be realized during our generation.
Ambers, Janet, Joanna Russell, David Saunders, and Kim Sloan. 2012 “Hidden History?:
Examination of Two Patches on John White’s Map of ‘Virginia.’” The British Museum
Technical Research Bulletin. 6: 47-54.
British Museum Collection Database. “1906,0509.1.3” www.britishmuseum.org/collection
British Museum. Accessed 18/02/2015.
Lane, Brent. 2012. “Hidden Images Revealed on Elizabethan Map of America.” First Colony
Foundation. Last modified May 3, 2012. http://www.firstcolonyfoundation.org/news/2012_white_map.aspx
LaVere, David. 2009. “ The 1937 Chowan River “Dare Stone”: A Re-evaluation.” North
Carolina Historical Review. 86 (3): 251-281.