High-tech archaeology finds Fort San Marcos, unlock ‘lost century’

Five centuries ago, two Spanish warships sailed to a marsh bank in the Lowcountry, a coastal jungle haunted by panthers, bison, elk and people the sailors considered savages. The bank was a foothold into the New World also sought by the French. The ships carried wood posts and planking to build a fort.

Today, researchers using radar, electric currents and magnetic waves have pinpointed exactly where they built it. Ground-penetrating radar and magnetometers located the outlines of the lost Fort San Marcos near Beaufort, amid the footprint of a church, courts, shops, taverns and farms that comprised the 1566 settlement of Santa Elena.

Archeologists knew about where it was, but the organic residue remains of the 16th century structures were buried underground in the midst of 16 acres that also are the site of the earlier French settlement of Charlesfort, on the edge of a golf course in today’s Marine Corps Recruit Depot.

Now archaeologists have the key to dig deeper into a past that some call the “lost century” of the state’s history, some 104 years before English settlers landed at Charles Towne on the banks of the Ashley River about 50 miles north. In other words, they can now begin to bring that history to life.

“This work will allow us to tell the story of the land that would eventually become the United States. Santa Elena is an important part of this history that lends insight into how colonial powers in Europe vied for control over this corner of the New World,” said Victor Thompson, University of Georgia anthropologist, who worked with University of South Carolina archaeologist Chester DePratter at the site.

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