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The Lost Colony Research Group

Genealogy ~ DNA ~ Archaeology




February 2011


The Hatteras Snaphance Find (Phelps, 1998)

Croatan Archaeological Site, Buxton, NC

By Baylus C. Brooks with analysis by Charles Heath & Brian Godwin


From 31DR1: Used by Permission of Phelps Archaeology Laboratory, East Carolina University


This past summer, I have worked with a really fine group of people who actually are friends with one another and do some fine research... together, as a group. They include REAL professionals, an Archaeology PhD candidate, an expert on Indian migration and DNA studies, an author of a book on the Croatoan Indians,  a Maritime History MA candidate (myself), many specialists in many different fields, including a Mayor from Bidford, England!  Serious questions are being answered, folks.

During my own research, I have sought other experts to help me understand the significance of certain finds, namely a gunlock that may date to the late 16th century (which would be highly significant!) and the Kendall ring (an artifact that may relate to one member of the Roanoke voyages, can be viewed here: ). 


These items were found by the late Dr. David S. Phelps, Professor Emeritus at East Carolina University. 


An ECU report on this archaeological site is available at http:///  I have made the resources available to all for the sake of unbiased opinions.  

This gunlock was examined previously by Dr. James D. Lavin of William & Mary University in Virginia.  Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to locate the professor, who is retired and we know nothing about what he found.  He may have had previous experience with research groups that turned him off to the Lost Colony project.  That would be unfortunate.  However, Dr. Lawrence Babits, director of the Maritime History program at ECU told me to contact Bly Straube of Jamestown Rediscovery who happens to be a published expert on snaphaunce mechanisms, which this piece is believed to be.  My first email to her included this photo that you see above without mention of where it came from (I did not want to bias any opinions that she might give).  Her immediate response was that it looked like “1580s snaphaunce” and she sounded mightily excited about it. 


Since then, I have taken extra photos of the interior of the gunlock for her to get a better idea of the date and put her in touch with our own resident archaeology expert, Louisa Pittman.  I have no information on what has happened since then.  I’m sure that Louisa has to get back to ECU before she can view Phelps data and determine context on the piece to later share with Straube. 


Meanwhile, I’d hunted for photos on the web for any snaphaunce (there’s quite a few actually) that might look like our friendly gunlock here and came across one that looks VERY similar (on Brian Godwin’s website).  The real point I focused upon between these is a square firing pan on the side… the ONLY one I had been able to find like ours. 



Top: English snaphance gun dated 1584 - National Museum, Copenhagen

Botton: Phelps Archaeology Laboratory, East Carolina University


This English snaphaunce is located in a Copenhagen museum now and has been dated to 1584.  Brian’s website is at  Brian Godwin is a renowned English snaphaunce expert who has been in touch with Dr. Charles Ewen at ECU (and lately, myself) about this very piece, now housed in ECU’s Special Collections Department in Joyner Library.  It is part of the “Croatan Archaeological Site” collection (31DR1) that also includes the Kendall family signet ring made famous of late.  

My opinion: The square pan cover is significantly different than all known snaphaunce except this one in the Copenhagen museum.  It is indicated in pink on the photo, but other similarities have been marked as well and are distinct from other snaphaunce or flintlock mechanisms that are presently known (with the exception of the red arrows that point to a feature indicative of snaphaunce as opposed to flintlocks).  The only significant difference in my opinion is the straight line of the bottom of the mounting plate.  Ours is slightly curved.  Mind you, I’m only guessing because I am not the experts in this, Godwin and Straube are. 


Brian Godwin has recently been in touch about this gunlock and he has given his revealing opinion in an email to me.  Charles Heath, of the team working with Dr. David S. Phelps who originally excavated the lock had originally dated the lock to 1605-1620 (mostly due to surrounding archaeological context of c1650 and later).  Godwin disagreed, but suggested that the dating of snaphaunces were off slightly in the older literature and that may explain the variation.  His recent experience became valuable.  Rather than rewrite it, I will just include sections of it which offer his convincing arguments (with his permission, of course):


As you mention in your email, the Outer Banks lock shares many of the features that can be seen in the 5 known English snaphance locks dating to the 16th century. These consist of an excavated pistol c1580 [Queenhithe] and a musket dated 1590 – Royal Armouries, Leeds; A single gun dated 1584 – National Museum, Copenhagen; a single musket dated 1588 – Victoria & Albert Museum, London; a pair of pistols dated 1593 – Konopiste Castle, Czech Republic. The following are characterises of these early snaphance locks. The lock plates are always trapezoidal in shape, necessitated by the small rod or bar on the lock interior that is connected to the tumbler. This opens the pancover as the cock falls forward. The internal components and arrangement used on the lock interior changed little in form over the period 1580 to 1630.



The external components of the English snaphance lock showed the greatest changes during the period 1580 to 1600. The most notable of these is the cock holding the flint. On those locks dating to the 1580s, the cock is almost straight in its form with a small tail or projection at its base. By 1590 the cock becomes more S-shaped in its form and the tail more prominent. Also its profile is flat. Similarly the arm of the steel is flat in profile. By the 1590s both these flat profile components take on different shapes, the most common being partly rounded and partly flat. 


Snaphance, dated 1600-1610:  You can see the S-shaped cock and the thicker buffer, a definite improvement over the earlier versions.  The Queenhithe model (1580) has a crack in its thinner buffer and probably indicates the problem with this earlier model.  [Photo from Brian Godwin]


The buffer or stop which arrests the fall of the cock is in the form of a small oblong shape and sometimes has a decorative finial. This form of buffer was used until about 1600, when a more substantial form with an elaborate finial was used.

The flashpan of English snaphance locks from this early period are usually box-like in form with a square shaped flash shield at the outer end. The forward section of the pan is slotted so that the sliding pan cover moves through the slot as it opens or closes. This feature had changed by about 1600 when the slotted portion of the pan was no longer used. Also the shape of the flash shield became round in form and this shape was then used almost exclusively until the lock went out of use in the 1640s.  [Email from Brian Godwin to Baylus C. Brooks, 9/26/2010]


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