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Determining the Facts

Reading 3: Archeological Excavations.

Investigations by archeologists and historians have taught us much about the history of Parris Island. Reports on excavations on Parris Island and research in archives tell us how that place once looked and how the people there once lived. But what we know today about Santa Elena is not what the experts always thought.

Until the mid-20th century, archeologists and historians assumed the site was French, not Spanish. One of the first primary sources of evidence used to write about the history of Parris Island was a series of French illustrations from the 16th century. These illustrations were drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, a Frenchman who lived at the site when France controlled it.

The first wave of researchers at Parris Island in the 1800s believed the site of Santa Elena was French and not Spanish. They did not have written evidence that Spaniards settled at Parris Island. The first excavations happened in the 1850s. They occurred before the United States outlawed slavery and it was enslaved laborers who excavated the Santa Elena site. During that excavation, they discovered a historic artifact: a gate. The researchers leading the excavation assumed the gate was part of the French settlement, Charlesfort, because they knew about the Le Moyne illustrations.

During World War I, the United States Marine Corps began to use Parris Island as a training site. The Marines uncovered pottery from the 16th century when they built their training grounds on the island in 1917. Major George Osterhout of the U.S. Marine Corps and his team excavated the site after the war. Osterhout was not a trained archeologist, but he kept careful records of their excavations. He wrote about what they discovered and decided the pottery found at the site looked like it was from Southern France.

Though Osterhout continued to excavate the site and called it a French settlement, other scholars began to publish articles that claimed the Santa Elena site was Spanish. In 1957, National Park Service archeologists examined the artifacts discovered by Osterhout. These trained archeologists compared the Parris Island artifacts to other 16th century artifacts found in the state of Florida. These archeologists decided that the artifacts from Parris Island were from Spain or created by Spaniards. They determined that the excavated fort site that Osterhout called French was actually Fort San Marcos, built by Spaniards in 1577.

After the discovery that the Parris Island artifacts are Spanish, new archeological excavations revealed more about the site. Archeologists would also find French artifacts that indicated both the French and the Spanish settled at Santa Elena.These artifacts give historians and archeologists a window into the lives of Spanish and French settlers. The excavations reveal how the settlers lived and created a timeline for occupations of the settlement, beginning in 1562 with the French at Charlesfort.

Archeologists found the location of the French fort after discovering French ceramics at the site. These ceramics included faience, a tin-based pottery, and French stoneware. Archeologists decided that Santa Elena's first Fort San Felipe was also the site of the French-occupied Charlesfort. The French left Charlesfort in 1563 and the Spaniards built Fort San Felipe on top of it. At Fort San Felipe, archeologists discovered French and Spanish artifacts mixed together.

New construction of a second Fort San Felipe began in 1570, but the actual location is still a mystery. Because of American Indian attacks, the fort was abandoned in 1576. In 1577, after the Spaniards returned to Santa Elena, they built the first Fort San Marcos. Archeologists believe that it was abandoned in 1582 or 1583. Its current location may be under the golf course that is now on the original site of San Marcos. Fort San Marcos, although abandoned, was brought back to life with a second attempt in either 1582 or 1583.

Archeologists believe that those with power and money, during both periods of occupation, lived in the northeast and southeast corners of the site. Some archeological data shows that a road most likely formed the eastern boundary of a plaza that also included a church and government buildings.

The archeological features are well preserved despite how old the site is and the modern buildings and features that have been built up around and on top of the old settlement. Today, a golf course covers most of the Santa Elena site. When it was constructed, the course was created by placing a layer of topsoil over the archeological site, preserving the remains of the houses and forts. Additional modern features of the site include a golf clubhouse and a paved road. Monuments to the first French settlers and to the Spanish presence have been placed at the site.

While the discoveries on the island can tell us much about early Spanish and French settlements on Parris Island, other archeological evidence at the site also includes pre and post contact American Indian artifacts, evidence of early 18th and 19th century plantations, and historic material from the U.S. Marine Corps training camp.

The archeology at Santa Elena is not finished; there are still more stories to tell. In 2014, after more than one hundred years have passed since the first excavations, archeologist Chester DePratter expressed the belief that only 2-4% of Santa Elena has been uncovered.

Questions for Reading 3

1) What are the biggest challenges archeologists faced and continue to face at Santa Elena?

2) If you were an archeologist at Santa Elena, how would you confirm or prove your findings? What other sources would you use?

3) Remarkably, the site at Santa Elena has been well preserved for archeologists. How is this possible and what advantages does it give to archeologists?

4) In your opinion, what is the most important information or discoveries for archeologists to uncover in future excavations? Architectural discoveries? Cultural facts?

 


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