In a mucky marsh, there was some partly buried wood that faintly resembled the outline of an 80-foot-long boat. There were no other clues, such as the copper-sheathed hull common on seafaring vessels of Lost Colony's time, and none of the three searchers had a scientific background or expertise to conclude much of anything.
Ray was convinced they'd found something. His son, Frank, wasn't as certain.
"There's no boarding ladder here, that's for sure," Frank Ray said. "You start with theory. This is a starting point. You're not convinced until you get proof."
Proof will have to wait for another venture into the swamp. The wildlife service refused to let the group probe the ground, dig for clues, or even take a wood sample for carbon dating. That will require a different permit.
"Anything seems plausible, but we can't be sure until we can do more than just walk in and look," Frank Ray said. Both Rays have split with the Lost Colony Center since their trip into the swamp and are pursuing research on their own.
A Ft. Raleigh archaeological dig led by veteran researcher Ivor Noel Hume in the early 1990s turned up the remnants of a scientific workshop -- dating to the abandoned attempt at colonizing Roanoke two years before the Lost Colony -- but didn't uncover the colonists' living area. In 1998, an archaeological dig led by East Carolina University on Hatteras Island turned up a signet ring that may have ties to English colonists.
The First Colony Foundation plans to use ground-penetrating radar to search for artifacts or structures at Roanoke Island. The group also plans to survey the shoreline to determine how it has eroded. Divers have already checked offshore areas, and researchers think Ft. Raleigh's original site may be under water or eroded away altogether. If that's the case, little would remain to prove any theories about the colony's fate.
"Every theory is probably partially true. Every theory is, however, significantly wrong," said Phil Evans, president of the First Colony Foundation. "Everybody wants one answer, but the reality is that you're looking to determine the fate of 117 different individuals."