Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, professor emeritus of history in Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, recently led a team in the discovery of a scientific laboratory belonging to Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.

Dr. Klingelhofer, Mercer’s first research fellow, has been involved in digs for Elizabethan-era artifacts, particularly at Roanoke, since the 1990s. His interest in both medieval Europe and England’s earliest colonies has involved him in archaeological fieldwork in England, North Carolina, Virginia and numerous Caribbean islands, among other locations.

“I was a field archaeologist for a number of years before I decided to go on for my Ph.D. in history,” Dr. Klingelhofer said. “I enjoyed teaching history, but I also enjoyed the fieldwork of archaeology, so it’s the best of both worlds.”

Along with his passion for archaeology, Dr. Klingelhofer also had a keen interest in the ever-enigmatic “Lost Colony” on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the first attempt at establishing an American settlement in 1587.

Two years earlier, Elizabethan soldiers and scientists arrived on the island to conduct research for exploration purposes. However, this was only supposed to be a temporary stay, as they would be replaced on a rotational basis. This plan would not come to fruition, and the expedition vacated the land.

In 1587, English settlers arrived at the same site and eventually realized they had inadequate sustenance to survive the harsh conditions of the new colony. John White, their governor, was sent back to England to obtain the supplies they needed. However, when White returned several years later, he found no sign of the colonists.

Dr. Klingelhofer’s interest was piqued from the first time he learned this history, and, as a result, he assisted in founding the First Colony Foundation in 2004 to educate individuals about America’s beginnings. He currently serves as vice president of the organization.

Klingelhofer at Roanoke
Dr. Eric Klingelhofer (right) led a team in the discovery of a scientific laboratory belonging to Sir Walter Raleigh’s explorers on Roanoke Island, North Carolina.

The foundation’s involvement in the recent dig continues the work of an early 1990s project that first located evidence of a scientific laboratory.

“We started excavating near Fort Raleigh at an earthwork from the 1500s that the National Park Service acquired in the 1940s,” Dr. Klingelhofer said. “They had excavated and rebuilt the mound. It’s the only thing that’s above ground; everything else is below ground or under sand dunes.”

The foundation has aided in several findings throughout the years, including the recent discovery of structures where scientific analysis took place. The new exploration offers more clues as to where and how Raleigh’s explorers conducted research before the “lost colonists” arrived.

“We found sherds of crucibles for assaying minerals, as well as pharmaceutical vessels, so we knew there was some sort of experiment going on,” Dr. Klingelhofer said. “The explorers wanted to see if there were precious metals or if plants they were coming across could be turned into medicine or oils for pharmaceutical purposes.”

Throughout his career in history and archaeology, Dr. Klingelhofer is grateful for the continued support he has received from Mercer for his endeavors.

“Mercer has been a long-term supporter of my research and excavations,” he said. “The University provided me support to travel and engage with these research efforts.”

Dr. Klingelhofer also firmly believes in the importance and academic benefit of student and professor collaboration.

“I encourage all Mercer students to become involved in experiential learning,” he said. “I’ve taken Mercer students on a number of excavations in Europe and the Caribbean, as well as Roanoke Island. They played a great role in my research, and I think it’s great that they had that experience for potential use in their careers.”