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A map, more than 420 years old, spans from the Chesapeake Bay on the north to Cape Lookout on the south, and shows Indian villages and small details of the coastline. Brent Lane ’81 (’90 MBA) has had a print of it on his wall for seven or eight years. Two patches on the map caught his attention — patching to add changes was common for mapmakers in that time.
Lane, director of the UNC Center for Competitive Economies in Kenan-Flagler Business School, once worked as a geologist in eastern North Carolina, and he said this map, the work of British colonial expedition leader John White, was an extraordinary match to modern aerial photos of the region.
“I was puzzled by those patches on the map,” Lane said; as a scholar and board member of the First Colony Foundation, he would have a particular interest in the lost Roanoke colony. He urged officials at the British Museum, the map’s owner, to look under the patches. Underneath one of them is a stunning find — a drawing of what could be a fort, and it’s at a geographical location that would make perfect sense as a site for one. It could even be the place where Sir Walter Raleigh wanted to build a city.
On a point of land in Bertie County where the Chowan River meets the Albemarle Sound is a four-cornered image that Lane says is not merely a symbol of a fort but a design that matches images of forts on other British colonial maps. “Actually, it’s identical to a fort design in Northern Ireland used by the British.”
The discovery was announced by the foundation and the museum at a news conference at Wilson Library in May.
The question of the destination of colonists found to have abandoned the Roanoke Island site in 1587 is North Carolina’s central colonial mystery.
Why the museum didn’t peek under the patches sooner is a mystery to Lane. He said that although the “Virginea Pars” map has been known for some 250 to 300 years and owned by the museum for 150, it was obscure and relatively unexamined. “It’s assumed to be famous, but in reality it’s not.”
Already archeologists have begun taking a closer look at artifacts from Bertie County that have been stored at UNC for years. Excavations in the area, which Lane says covers tens of thousands of acres, could start soon.
An academic symposium on the find is being planned jointly in Chapel Hill and London for early 2013.