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The Lost Colony Research Group

Genealogy ~ DNA ~ Archaeology




February 2011



From  “The Queenhithe  Pistol” by Howard L. Blackmore.  Note the larger buffer to more firmly arrest the cock’s motion, an innovation made by 1600 - soon after the English began making the snaphaunce c1575.  Article provided by Brian Godwin.


From Godwin’s explanation, we learn that the innovations on the snaphaunce necessitate an earlier date than 1605, the more probable range being 1580-1590. 


The Queenhithe pistol was found on the shores of the muddy Thames beneath a centuries-old loading dock (many goodies in there no doubt) and many of the components were still intact.  Dreadfully, the finders were not archaeologists and they tried to dry out the wooden stock… get this, in a pressure cooker!  Obviously, all of those metal parts needed a new home stock and the Royal Armouries Museum made one for it.  Godwin hopes that another one turns up in the Thames mud so that a sole complete surviving snaphaunce, stock and all, will be available to us.  Ivor Noël Hume (Jamestown and Martin’s Hundred, Virginia), renowned “mudlark” also studied this pistol and wrote his 1956 book, Treasures of the Thames about this and the many muddy great finds below the old docks.


What was the context of the Buxton dig at 31DR1 you may be wondering?  Charles Heath, the archaeologist that worked with Phelps in Buxton, explained that the gunlock was found among other evidence that indicated native use of the gunlock after 1650.  It was discarded purposefully, most likely, for faulty workings, perhaps.  Heath inferred that locks of this type are routinely found in burials in refuse contexts on sites that post-date c1665.  Indians were being armed, illegally, by colonists between 1665-1685.  Thus, gun parts were easy for Indians to obtain in trade for deerskins, furs, slaves, and pottery.  Tuscaroras had increased their efforts to obtain slaves in trade during this period as well and controlled a greater range than before, dominating the region. 


On the Croatoan site, a number of fired/flattened shot were found amongst deer and other animal bone remains, indicating that the Croatoan were using guns at least by 1675.  The reasoning goes, then, that the Indians of Coastal North

Carolina routinely acquired firearms during the time frame the workshop area at 31DR1 (Croatoan) was utilized by the Croatoans in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.


The text passage in the 1600-1610 photo from Brian Godwin tells of the earliest reference in documents to the snaphaunce:  1580 - 9 cases of snaphaunce (specialized, state-of-the-art weapons) each 40 shillings “for light horsemen” sent to Ireland.  Remember where Sir Walter Raleigh served between 1579-83, just prior to the first Roanoke voyage?  Yep, that was Ireland, under Lord Grey and at the point of activity in 1580.  These cases were probably sent for Raleigh’s troops’ use in the 2nd Desmond Rebellion, probably at the Battle/Massacre of Smerwick.  The snaphaunce in ECU right now (31DR1) could be one of those, owned by a wealthy man who served in the war and had access to state-of-the-art weaponry.  Raleigh’s men certainly qualify.


It could also be from a piece taken to Jamestown after 1607.  This drawing, taken from Blackmore’s article, was done from a piece found near Jamestown.  It looks similar in many respects, small buffer and a straight cock, only the fence is missing.  The screw atop the jaws is extended.  Still, it has all the appearances of a 1580-90 piece as well.  


From “The Queenhithe  Pistol” by Howard L. Blackmore. 


Still, the Hatteras gunlock could also have been sent to America as old weapons traded for skins/furs with the Indians 1640-1670, as inferred by Charles Heath.  At least there’s a tie between Raleigh and a snaphaunce like this one (these were probably pistols, too… used mostly by light horsemen).


While Heath presents a fabulous argument for why an English piece this old might appear later in the mid-1600s, I can’t help but think that a prototype snaphaunce (of which few were made) would not be around by 1650-60 to send to America and be traded with Indians.  I try to clean out my garage at least every ten years.  Then again, projecting modern habits onto the past probably do not apply.  Still, they serve to let out the romantic in me.


From a modern perspective, this early, and agreeably defective, model should have been long discarded by everyone.  In 1584, however, it was state-of-the-art and would have been brought by Raleigh’s experienced soldiers for the Roanoke mission.  I may be wrong, but what a wonderful story that would make!


Useful publications:


·        English Snaphance Firearms – a loan exhibition, Spring 2006 London Park Lane Arms Fair catalogue.

·        Godwin B.C., “The English Snaphance Lock”, Spring 2006 London Park Lane Arms Fair catalogue, pp.28-63.

·        Straube B.A., “A Re-examination of the English Lock”, American Society of Arms Collectors, Bulletin No.63, 1990.

·        “The Queenhithe Pistol”, by Howard Blackmore – 10th Park Lane Arms Fair

·        catalogue February 1994 (see below).

·        Brian Godwin has graciously offered several pdf articles on the snaphaunce that I have made available here:


Archaeology vs Treasure Hunting

From the snaphaunce article, one can easily see how important archaeology and the resulting research it enables is to history - more specifically - to the search for the Lost Colonists.  The smallest piece, unrecognizable to most of us, certainly to an untrained eye, may indeed hold the clue, and the answer we all seek.


Who among us isn't mesmerized by the thought of finding that artifact that will solve the mystery of the Lost Colony?  But like most things in life, there's a right way and a wrong way to go about that elusive search.


I was recently appalled to find the following information (with names blanked out to protect the guilty) on the internet on a site selling metal detectors.  A small group of people accompanyed an individual who claimed to be a "pro", but who is not an archaeologist (nor was the group accompanied by or working with an archaeologist) discovered and removed over 400 artifacts from a location under study as a possible site of the Lost Colonists. 


Quoting directly from the website, is their description of what was done:

We...headed to the Outer Banks at daybreak.  We were all a bit surprised when the first signal was received after only a few sweeps.  Digging through the tree roots and vines, I reached the midden layer and from 10" pulled out a large flat button with engraving on the front as well as some gilding remaining dating from the early 1600's! This was the oldest North American metallic artifact I've recovered on land in more than 45 years of detecting and a great omen for the next few days.

Another area <name removed> wanted to try the metal detectors out on was a tract that had been examined on previous visits using the Random Shovel Test Pit method.  Laying out a test square, <names removed> commenced a methodical scan of the area with the new <name removed> detectors flagging any metallic object located.   After the section was scanned and targets flagged, a survey map was generated showing the location of each target and if the target was shown to be ferrous or non-ferrous by the metal detector.   Due to time and resource limitations, only the indicated non-ferrous items were recovered. Within the test square area, <names removed> located 41 metallic targets.  All of the artifacts recovered were found at depths ranging from 12 inches to 30 inches.

Did the metal detectors provided help evaluate the Indian village site?  Well, the point that stood out after less than a day of scanning the site was that the Random Shovel Test Pit method which is considered to be standard operating procedure for most archeological surveys had in fact painted a picture totally opposite to what the metal detector survey had revealed.  <Name removed> summed it up by stating "We located and recovered more artifacts and higher quality artifacts in 3 days with only 4 people than we had using conventional methods in 10 days with 20 people at a cost of $11,000.  More importantly, the metal detectors identified the existence of artifacts in a section of the site that had been deemed barren through past excavations and archeologist assessments!"

After 3 days in the field, more than 400 items were recovered.  All of us that spent time at the Croatan site quickly recognized the value that metal detectors have as a tool to increase the efficiency of data obtained in archeological surveys by locating high-value areas of standard archeological methods might otherwise fail to find.

So what is wrong with what these people did?


Archaeological artifacts aren't just antiques sold to the highest bidder or the prize to the luckiest guy with a metal detector.  The context in which artifacts are found gives them meaning, helps provide an age, and gives them a story.  They can't be reliably analyzed outside of that context.  Furthermore, treasure hunters or those who sell artifacts on the black market routinely engage in this sort of plunder with no consideration for history or the damage they are doing. 


Let's look at the button they found, for example.  They state that the button was from the early 1600s.  In the early 1600s, Hatteras island had not been settled by whites.  In fact, it was not even visited, according to the records, until 1664.  So how did a button get to Hatteras Island and in the midden?  And where was it in the midden?  What was located around it would tell us a lot about its age.  Was it a trade item from Jamestown?  Or, given that a professional archaeologist was not involved to date the item, was the date off?  Could the button have been from the time of the colonists? If so, and if it was found in the proper context that would suggest or confirm that the button was intermixed with Native items and perhaps also other nonmetal English items, such as pottery that could also be dated - this button could indeed be, or could have been, the smoking gun to prove the colonists went to Hatteras Island.  Furthermore, it could have identified where they lived, the colonists village site. The treasure hunters presumed it was the Native village site.....but maybe not.  But now, it can never be more than a treasure hunter's bounty for the day - in his or her personal collection.  Bragging rights to sell metal detectors, nothing more.


Without the involvement of a professional archaeologist, meaning an individual with at least a bachelor's degree in archaeology, conducting a properly documented removal of the objects, the artifacts lose their meaning - and their authenticity can never be proven or documented after that.


If the treasure hunting group had been fortunate enough to find that elusive artifact that might prove the survival of the colonists, they probably would not have been experienced enough to realize the discovery they might have made.  In fact, they may have destroyed that critical evidence, proving that the colony survived, far more important than the artifact itself, in their quest for metallic treasure.  Furthermore, anything not metal, and specifically not ferrous metal, was sacrificed and ignored, possibly irresponsibly destroyed in the retrieval of the coveted metal objects.  Cherry picking is treasure hunting and plunder. 


Where are these artifacts today?  They certainly aren't being cleaned, evaluated, studied and cataloged in a university or professional setting, available for future researchers and to be made available through academic writing to the public.  They are forever lost to history.  As the treasure hunter said - it's his best find in 45 years of treasure hunting.  Did he find the colonists forever lost to history?  We'll never know.


It a situation such as this where the results are so critical to history, this type of behavior is at least unethical.  For someone who knows better and does this intentionally, it's worse.


The commentary about the previous dig taking 10 days, 20 people and costing $11,000 is referencing a legitimate, professional archaeological dig where Charles Heath served as the professional archaeologist.  Yes, that would be the same Charles Heath that has been involved in the excavation and analysis of the snaphaunce in the previous article and who worked with Dr. Phelps.  And yes, archaeologists do expect to be paid, as do all professionals. 


What should have been done with the metal detectors is that the items should have been mapped and flagged, and an archaeological crew brought in to retrieve the items, preserving their history and context.


Louisa Pittman, an archaeologist on our team from the University of Bristol reviewed this article for me, and she reminds me that the use of metal detectors is not inherently bad and they are used in a limited capacity in legitimate archaeological digs.  However, the items are not extracted out of context.  Mostly, metal detectors are used after the dig and before the backfill to be sure nothing was missed.  The difference between using metal detectors responsibly and destructively is how the tool is applied by the people involved.


For more info on the difference between treasure hunting and archaeology, take a look at this article


Are you interested in what has found on Hatteras Island during legitimate archaeological digs?  Great....let's take a look!


Dr. David Phelps Hatteras Island Excavations

In the McArthur collection in the History Center in Manteo, Beatrice McArthur clipped some newspaper articles about Dr. David Phelps archaeology digs which I've partially transcribed here, hoping they might help preserve the history of Hatteras Island.  Unfortunately, Dr. Phelps field reports were never completed before his death, and the information must be gleaned from reports such as this and eyewitnesses who participated in the digs.  Some of the artifacts are currently housed at Eastern Carolina University.


Ms. McArthur did not record the names of the newspapers, so I have not reproduced their stories verbatim.  I have extracted pertinent information from various articles and combined them into a somewhat coherent article.  Most of these articles appear to be from 1997.  This first portion carried a hand written note that said June, 1997.


Dr. David Phelps has spent the past month digging test excavations at a site in Buxton which led to the discovery of what Phelps believes is a workshop that dates between 1650 and 1729.  The crew discovered a littering of lead shot, lead slag and fragments of brass and copper.  Further excavations led to two hearths, mounds of sand which have been discolored and changed in texture due to the repeated heat of intense fires.  It was the red color and density of the sand as well as the abundance of ash content surrounding the mounds which allowed the crew to identify twin hearths.


So far, excavations have turned up a lot of European artifacts; white clay smoking pipes, gun flints, lead shot or various sizes, glass bottles and ceramic fragments. 


While none of it confirms the existence of the Lost Colonists, Phelps said, it's helpful in understanding the life of the Croatoans.  "All these things suggest a strong trading relationship with the Europeans".  We're beginning to see what it was like for folks from 1650 to 1715, probably not as good when they owned the whole island."


He called a peach pit discovered a few days ago "a major find".


The peach suggests that the Croatans were trading with other southeastern tribes or with the Spaniards who introduced peaches to the Americas and were growing them on Florida plantations in the 1600s.


One NC historian has suggested that the Spaniards had a trading post on the Roanoke River, Phelps said.  Because no arrowheads have been found it is believed that the musket had replaced the bow and arrow.


The town midden, the area where Croatans threw their trash, overlies evidence of the post molds of Croatan houses.


Phelps and his crew also made a unique discovery of a number of bone rings, made from bird bones and approximately 3/8 of an inch in diameter.  According to Phelps, these rings have not been seen anywhere else in archaeological digs.  The rings could have been used in early trading, but Phelps is unsure about their direct purpose.  He added that bird bones are a common find and decorated bird bones have been found in archaeological excavations along the east coast, but never shaped like a ring.


The Buxton site itself belongs to Ronald Midgett and his wife.  During the past year and a half Phelps and his crews have made 3 test excavations at the site before the 600 square meter major excavation of the workshop area.  The crew initially came upon the workshop after opening an area beside a 24 square meter test pit from last year.  Due to the lack of household debris and the presence of more than one hearth Phelps dismissed the idea of the area once being a house.


According to Phelps, the artifacts found at the site are representative of those that could be found throughout the area of Buxton identified as the historic Croatan.  The artifacts

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