View Full Version : Digging up Parris Island's treasures

05-09-05, 05:52 AM
Digging up Parris Island's treasures
Published Tue, May 3, 2005

The Beaufort Gazette

For more than a century, Parris Island has been known as one of the few places on Earth dedicated to the making and molding of the U.S. Marines.
But for those archaeological and anthropological fanatics out there, Parris Island represents a lot more than the womb for one of the world's greatest fighting forces. It also was the cradle of European colonialism and some of the earliest struggles of Europeans to make the alien terrain of America into a home in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The efforts by Marine and civilian officials to preserve and manage the cultural heritage of the island, from early settlements to old plantation cemeteries and the trunk of a 19th-century lighthouse, resulted in the selection of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island for a Secretary of Defense Environmental Award, for the base's management of the island's cultural resources.

Presentation of the award to officials is slated for Wednesday in a Pentagon ceremony.

The artifacts of other times are protected so well because they are aboard a Marine installation, which places an emphasis on preservation, said Bryan Howard, an archaeologist at the recruit depot.

"Because the Marine Corps is here, it's been preserved," Howard said of the colonial settlements of St. Elena and Charlesfort, two parts of Parris Island history that have been partially excavated but still lie largely underground. "It's pretty much untouched."

Officials at the Parris Island Museum have established a walking trail and other structural amenities that are making it easier for people to learn about the island's non-military past.

Parris Island was chosen for the award because of the preservation of such cultural resources and cooperation among personnel and civilians to ensure that such relics were properly taken care of, said Maj. Susan Idziak, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

The other side

Lying innocuously under the ground or peeking out from beneath the turf near the Legends Golf Course on Parris Island, remnants of the earliest European visitors to the new world can be found.

The ruins of Spanish and French settlements, though not very noticeable or visible to the naked, amateur eye, represent some of the first European footprints in what would become the Southeastern United States, Howard said.

"It's one of the earliest European settlements in the area that represented quite a conflict (among) Spain, France and England," Howard said. "Right here on Parris Island is where a lot of that conquest of the new world was being played out."

Charlesfort was a French settlement established by Lowcountry legend and consummate Frenchman Jean Ribaut in 1563, said Chester DePratter, an archaeology professor at the University of South Carolina.

"Ribaut called it one of the most fairest harbors in the world," Howard said of Port Royal Sound.

Ribaut established the colony and then went back to France for more supplies, DePratter said, but he failed to return.

"Those poor settlers ended up building their own boat and going home," he said of the French colonists, who only stayed one year.

Although Spain had laid claim to the area since the days of Christopher Columbus, St. Elena was not established as a Spanish colonial town on Parris Island until 1566, DePratter said.

From 1566 to 1576, it was the capital of Spanish Florida, he said, which stretched down the East Coast to St. Augustine, DePratter said.

About 350 settlers came in the initial Spanish wave, DePratter said, living in the Lowcountry among different American Indian tribes until attacks by the English caused the consolidation of the Spanish efforts around Florida and the abandonment of the settlement in 1587, he said.

The English came to the island about a century later, but decided to settle in Charleston instead when they found Spanish-speaking Indian tribes near Parris Island, DePratter said.

"They didn't take that as a good sign," he said.

The positioning of Parris Island was strategically and logistically attractive to settlers from all three countries, DePratter said. Indian tribes such as the Orista and Edisto didn't inhabit the island, but instead lived near what is now the Whale Branch area, and the location could not be beat.

"Parris Island is right on the center of the harbor," he said. "If you're standing on that southern end, you can look straight out to the ocean, so defensively, it's an ideal place."

The entrance to the Port Royal Sound is not immediately apparent, and this resulted in some explorers missing it altogether as they came up the coast, DePratter said.

More treasures

Archaeologists have excavated part of an old Spanish kiln and other remnants, but much of what was once colonies remains hidden beneath the soil, DePratter said.

Only about 3 percent of St. Elena's 15 acres has been excavated, he said, but much of the work depends on sporadic funding sources, he said.

"There is likely a Spanish cemetery somewhere there," DePratter said. "There is plenty left to do."

Having the Marines overseeing the island has meant that the artifacts waiting to be unearthed have largely been left undisturbed, DePratter said.

The other bastion of Spanish colonialism, St. Augustine, has not been so lucky.

"There's a lot of history there that's underneath modern housing," Howard said of St. Augustine. "But because this site is on Parris Island, that didn't happen."

"Here, you only have to dig down a few inches to reach the 16th-century occupation," DePratter said of the ruins. "To reach the same levels in St. Augustine today, you have to dig down 4 to 6 feet, through debris, roadways, walls, bricks and trash. It's hard to even find a good portion to excavate, so we're lucky to have this site."

While helping to fuel the local economy and training the future elements of U.S. fighting forces, the Marine Corps also is protecting the fading remnants of another time.

"They've been excellent stewards of that site by supporting us in every way," DePratter said "Their continued presence is a service to the site."

Contact Geoff Ziezulewicz at 986-5539 or geoffz@beaufortgazette.com.


05-09-05, 06:56 PM