The mystery of what happened to the early British settlers who vanished from the colony on Roanoke Island on what is now the outer banks of North Carolina has endured for 427 years.
The 118 settlers that made up the colony were left behind by founder John White in 1587 when he sailed back to England to resupply. When he returned three years later, there was no trace of the colonists… or their settlement. Theories abound as for what happened to them, ranging from assimilation into indigenous tribes to abduction by aliens.
More sober historians have speculated as to the actual fate of the colony, but little in the way of new evidence had been discovered for centuries - until a researcher named Brent Lane took a closer look at a pair of small patches on a 16-century coastal map of the area that was housed at the British Museum in London, England.
The museum used modern technological processes like infrared light, X-ray spectroscopy and other advanced techniques to peer beneath the patches where a four-pointed star outlined in blue and filled with red, as well as other enigmatic markings, were discovered. Experts believe that the mysterious markings eventually may lead to the discovery of the ruins of an unknown fort or a second settlement. But for now, America’s original conspiracy theory remains a mystery.
Will the new discovery help solve the enigma of Roanoke? How can technology help us solve other unsolved historical mysteries?
Brent Lane, adjunct professor, heritage economics, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; board member, First Colony Foundation