A mere 2 percent of the site of the Santa Elena settlement, on what is today called Parris Island, has been excavated since the location of the first colonial capital was confirmed in 1979.
Quite likely, a lode of great value -- financially, culturally and historically -- is buried beneath the Marine Corps recruit depot that now occupies the island.
The nonprofit Santa Elena Foundation deserves support in its new push to unearth and tell the story of the Spanish town, established four decades before Jamestown. This movement is gaining momentum, and that could mean a big boost for Beaufort County's tourism industry.
But South Carolina has to get its priorities in order and its act together for this effort to take wing. Proper preservation of what is uncovered there will be largely dependent upon state government.
In periodic digs between 1979 and 2008, the state Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina has retrieved enough artifacts to fill more than 800 cubic feet, according to a recent Associated Press report. The Marine Corps has allowed the institute to house the artifacts as long as they are properly protected.
However, many items, particularly those dug up decades ago, are stored in deteriorating cardboard boxes and plastic or paper bags, according to the institute's Chester DePratter.
The Marine Corps has stipulated that before archaeological work can resume, the entire collection must be repackaged and recatalogued. Legislators earmarked $220,000 in the state budget to help do that, easily overriding the veto of Gov. Nikki Haley, who argued private donations should pay the tab.
Make no mistake, the private and charitable sectors will do their part.
The Santa Elena Foundation intends to raise money to showcase this important piece of national history -- an interpretive center and full-time archaeologists are part of its plans. The foundation does not yet have an estimate for all it envisions, but board member Dick Stewart said the first phase will cost $1 million to $2 million. Some of that might come through grants or public funding, but private money and volunteer efforts will be substantial.
Further, we agree with Sen. Tom Davis' criticism of Haley's veto -- preservation of this under-appreciated piece of cultural heritage is a legitimate government function. At a bare minimum, the state has an obligation to care for artifacts already in its possession.
"These 500-year-old artifacts are sitting in cardboard boxes and bags and rotting away," Davis, a Beaufort Republican, told The Associated Press. "A private foundation can't go forward until the state has its house in order."
With the $220,000 set aside in the state budget, South Carolina begins to meet its obligation and help surface an important story too long buried on Parris Island.