Archaeologists continuing to map a 16th-century Spanish town on Parris Island have discovered more clues to unlock the site’s 4,000-year history.
They also warn that the recently discovered evidence of Spanish forts is already heavily eroded and could soon disappear as seas continue to rise in the Port Royal Sound.
“Once these structures are gone, then the opportunity to learn from them is gone as well,” archaeologists Chester DePratter and Victor Thompson wrote in an article published in the journal “Remote Sensing” in February about their work at the Santa Elena site. “Based on these observations, we estimate that these structures, along with other near shoreline cultural resources, will be lost in the near future (i.e., by the end of this century, but likely earlier).”
The Spanish occupied Santa Elena from 1566 until 1587, except for a brief period when it was abandoned after a Native American attack.
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DePratter, Thompson and their team have worked the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island site under what was the depot’s golf course using shovel tests and a technique called remote sensing to send pulses underground and log what they see.
Identifying buildings and other features and tying them to specific time periods is tricky work, archaeologists note. The process is complicated by the various uses of the property by the Native Americans, French and Spanish settlers, Civil War-era plantation owners and now the federal government to train Marines.
The archaeologists, the Santa Elena Foundation and University of South Carolina announced in 2016 the discovery of Fort San Marcos. The fort was established in 1577 by Pedro Menendez Marquez, the governor of Spanish La Florida.
A three-dimensional scaled model of San Marcos was unveiled at the Santa Elena History Center last year.
Sites of San Marcos and two other forts on the 15-acre settlement, San Felipe and Charlesfort, need to be excavated to guard against further erosion, the archaeologists wrote.
They estimate San Marcos is 60 percent eroded, that half of San Felipe is lost and that a site believed to be a second Fort San Felipe is 99 percent gone. Their report recommended “a concerted effort be made to conduct large-scale recovery excavations along the shoreline edge of the site.”
A more detailed look at the data scientists have collected will result in a final map of the Spanish site, Thompson said in a Santa Elena Foundation news release. DePratter and Thompson believe Santa Elena is the best preserved site in the country from that period because of its protected location under a golf course.
In addition to the forts, they have worked to locate other structures within the settlement.
“Once we have a detailed site map, we can focus on individual structures—a church, a house, a fort—rather than just having to open large excavation units in the hope of finding something interesting,” DePratter said in the release.
While the work is largely focused on the Spanish occupation of the area, the work has led to other discoveries from other periods of history on the site.
Among the recent findings, according to the release:
▪ Two possible Native American council houses.
▪ Areas where rows of slave houses once stood.
▪ Features that indicate the presence of a Native American village dating back as early as 2,750 BC.