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Rudi Kiefer: The fascinating mystery that is the Dare Stone
Rudi Kiefer
The story of the Lost Colony continues to fascinate people.

Settlers from England landed on Roanoke Island (near today’s Manteo, North Carolina) in 1587, but disappeared within three years.

Some 350 years later, a tourist found a stone in a swamp outside of Edenton, inscribed with what is believed to be colonist Eleanor Dare’s description of their fate and whereabouts.
To the present day, there’s no conclusive scientific evidence that the chiseled text is authentic and not an elaborate forgery.

It tells of an epidemic, and a massacre by natives that left only a few of the original colonists alive.

With all those modern methods of analysis, I’m often asked why we can’t establish a definitive age of the artifact. There’s radiocarbon dating, atomic spectroscopy, and much more.

Sure, detailed analysis of the rock has been performed, showing that it’s a quartz extracted most likely from a mine in the Virgilina District of Virginia. Its age though, some 300 million years, tells us nothing about when the colony’s newsletter was chiseled into it, or who did it.

In 1937, Louis Hammond was looking for hickory nuts in the wetlands bordering the Chowan River. Along with those edible treats, he unearthed a stone that seemed to bear ancient inscriptions.

Washing it in river water didn’t help, so he threw it in his car and took it along. That evening, he innocently cleaned it as best he could.

Today’s archeologists could cry over the wire brush scrubbing the stone received. Moreover, Hammond traced the letters with a pencil, contaminating the chisel marks with graphite.

To establish when the inscriptions were made, a geologist would search for patina inside, which is the thin crust of minerals that forms when rock weathers, or decays. It can be found in old tombstones, which helps prove authenticity. But tombstones stand out in the open for centuries in unchanging conditions.

Nobody knows if the Dare Stone lay in the acidic muck near today’s U.S. 17 for that long. Or maybe it spent time in the drier Virginia Piedmont? Was it possibly carved at the original fort on Roanoke Island, exposed to wetting and drying in the sand and sea spray?

Hammond’s discovery brought a fascinating mystery to American history books.

His unassuming handling of the find, though, will have researchers scratching their heads for a long time yet.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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