Beaufort News

Santa Elena fort found after decades-long search

Fort San Marcos: Why is it important?

Chester DePratter, a research professor with the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, talks about why the discovery of Fort San Marcos at Santa Elena is so significant to Beaufort County on J
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Chester DePratter, a research professor with the South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, talks about why the discovery of Fort San Marcos at Santa Elena is so significant to Beaufort County on J

Improved technology helped archaeologists finally locate a 16th-century Spanish fort on what is now Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

Archaeologists had been looking for San Marcos, one of several forts built on the Santa Elena settlement, for more than 20 years. The location was nailed down using radar and magnetometers.

The machines have been in play for archaeologists for years, but the computer programs interpreting the data have vastly improved in recent years, said University of Georgia archaeologist Victor Thompson. Thompson has worked on the site with University of South Carolina archaeologist Chester DePratter, whose search for San Marcos began in 1993.

The general location of the fort had been noted using documents archived in Spain. There was a drawing of the fort and a written description but nothing detailing the location.

Traditional digging methods had failed to find the fort.

“We can’t go to a map and say ‘oh, this is where Pedro Menendez lived or this is where that fort was or this is where anything was,’ ” DePratter said. “So we have to figure it out.”

The fort was founded in 1577 by Pedro Menendez Marquez. The outpost went up in six days, with large pieces already made off-site to protect against an attack by Native Americans.

Though the actual wooden materials have long become part of the earth, the fort could be found by identifying the large post holes required to support the two-story structure and from other signs of human interaction.

“Anytime humans occupy an area for an extended period of time, they alter the physical characteristics of the subsurface,” Thompson said. “If floors become compacted, we can see that. If posts were dug in but then removed, we can see that.

As long as there is some physical change that accompanies those behaviors, then we can image it.”

Santa Elena was founded in 1566 by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Its whereabouts remained a mystery until 1979, when archaeologists found evidence while digging on the Parris Island golf course.

DePratter and Thompson have been working on the site this summer with a small team of doctoral students and undergraduates.

They are working to map the entire town of Santa Elena, believed to have included some 60 homes as well as a church, shops and taverns. They believe they are also close to knowing the location of Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ home, which can be distinguished from the other home sites by high-end Chinese wares no one else in the settlement could have afforded, DePratter said.

He believes they have also found another governor’s home nearby.

The team is working in open fields that were once fairways of the golf course, since moved to accommodate the archaeological work.

DePratter began his search in 1993 digging small test holes all the way to the golf course clubhouse. He uncovered a pottery kiln — a chamber where the wares were heated and hardened — but no fort.

DePratter returned five years later and had play diverted on the golf course to explore again, digging a little too far south of where the fort was eventually found.

Before DePratter and Thompson began mapping again, no digging had been done on the site since 2008 and no large-scale projects since 2000. DePratter reached out to Thompson because of his colleague’s experience with the technology.

Thompson, in a black floppy hat and short-sleeve plaid shirt, unfurled a map Tuesday with a grid of blocks the team has mapped. Each is about 400 square feet.

The work is done in part by pushing a black, three-wheeled cart toting the radar along the ground. A magnetometer and resistivity meter are also used.

In determining the fort’s location, there was no breakthrough moment as when DePratter dinged the pottery kiln. Instead, the work was a compilation of layers of data and ruling out Native American artifacts and sites housing Marine structures during the early 20th century.

The scientists have the cooperation of the Marine Corps and come and go as they please. The remote spot behind the golf course means a protected site with few visitors — most recently Marines on their lunch break visited Santa Elena to play the popular phone app “Pokemon Go.”

Despite the breakthrough on the fort’s location, another six to nine months is required to process the data and learn what has been found. The new discovery will be published this week in the Journal of Archeological Science: Reports, according to a news release.

The resulting information will be included in future exhibits at the Santa Elena History Center, which opened this year in downtown Beaufort to tell the story of the early settlement.

“Days like today are the reason we established the foundation with a vision to uncover this significant history,” Santa Elena Foundation chairman and CEO Andy Beall said in a release.

Stephen Fastenau: 843-706-8182, @IPBG_Stephen


Oct. 9, 2015 For years, no one knew one of the most significant archaeological finds in South Carolina history lay hidden under a golf course. | READ


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