Dig it
Archaeologist team tunnels into 450 years of Parris Island history
Published Tuesday November 22 2005
The Beaufort Gazette

Archaeology is a science based on finding the relic needle in an earthen haystack. Painstaking patience is the order of the day, and when trying to find a dry moat that existed more than 300 years ago, that challenge increases even more.

But that's what archaeologists spent last week doing on Parris Island, in an attempt to discern the boundaries of a 16th-century French settlement named Charlesfort, one of the first in North America.

As part of an effort to curb erosion on the island, the Marine Corps recently commissioned archaeologists with the University of South Carolina's S.C. Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology to review where the remains of two largely unearthed 16th-century colonial settlements -- Charlesfort and Santa Elena -- sit in relation to the eroding earth and marshland.

"We don't know when (the errosion) occurred," USC Professor Chester DePratter said. "It could've been the first 50 years of abandonment or the last century. But we know it's continuing."

The project to shore up the coast is also a continuous one, said Dr. Bryan Howard, an archaeologist at the Parris Island Museum, and having archaeologists attempt to pinpoint the former grounds of the settlements will help the Army Corps of Engineers proceed with their plans.

"In order for them to know how to do it, you have to know what is to be avoided," Howard said.

So for the past month, DePratter and a bevy of local archaeologists have been digging trenches in order to better discern just where the French and Spanish settlements' boundaries once stood.

Last week, DePratter oversaw an excavation of the French settlement that defined where the fort's moat, also its boundary, once flowed.

Finding a moat with no water involves discerning between different shades of soil, he said, as well as disturbances.

"It shows up pretty clearly," DePratter said. "But you're looking for stains on the ground, so it's never that easy."

While crumbling walls and visible relics don't stand out at the Charlesfort settlement and its Spanish counterpart Santa Elena,also on Parris Island, DePratter said there is much more to excavate on the 15 acres of the island that the Spanish settled in 1566.

"There is an entire Spanish town," he said. "We only dug up about 3 percent."

The colonization of the Lowcountry began in 1563, when Jean Ribaut established the French Charlesfort colony.

With the people in place on Parris Island, Ribaut returned to France for more supplies and failed to return.

The remaining settlers, facing hunger and the fear of the vast wilderness around them, ended up building their own boat and sailing for home. An English ship rescued the survivors, who, according to historical accounts, resorted to cannibalism.

Although Spain laid claim to the area since Christopher Columbus' voyage in 1492, Santa Elena was not established as a colonial town on Parris Island until 1566, only three years after Charlesfort failed.

For about 10 years, it was the capital of Spanish Florida, which spread down the East Coast to St. Augustine.

About 350 settlers came in the initial wave, living in the Lowcountry until attacks by the English caused the consolidation of Spanish efforts in present-day Florida and the abandonment of the settlement in 1587.

Along with rounds and other Marine Corps detritus, DePratter said that bits of Spanish life have been found on the latest excavation as well, mainly coins and shards of glass. The Spanish and French settlements ended up occupying almost the same land.

More complete relics from previous excavations can be viewed at the Parris Island Museum, Howard said.

"The Spanish were very good curators of what they brought," DePratter said. "They kept tight records of what was sent here and what happened to it."

USC archaeologists have been studying the Parris Island settlements for about 26 years, under various sources of funding, DePratter said.

Funding is always a concern, he said. And while there is much more to discover, DePratter questioned whether the sites should be excavated further.

"We could dig forever," he said, adding that Corps' preservation efforts will keep the settlements safe. "But in one sense, it's better to leave it."