The initial excavations at Santa Elena involved sampling to locate the town and to determine the distribution of structural remains within it. This sampling resulted in identification of the town and a number of buildings, as well as the unanticipated discovery of a portion of a fort identified as Fort Fort San Felipe (II). Subsequent field seasons have been directed toward excavation of most of this fort and its blockhouse, and five houses in the town. Test excavations have also been conducted in the site's other known fort, Fort San Marcos (II). Wells, daub processing pits, and dozens of other features associated with the Spanish occupation have also been excavated.
Beginning in 1991, the Columbian Quincentennial Commission of South Carolina and its Chairman, Dr. Chester B. DePratter, assumed an active role in the Santa Elena Project. The Commission chose Santa Elena to be its major educational and research effort in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. During the three years of commission sponsorship, large block areas were excavated in the town of Santa Elena. These excavations were opened to the public and guides were employed to lead visitors on site tours. A total of more than 5,000 visitors toured the site from 1991 to 1993.
In 1993, during a search for a Spanish fort, a Spanish colonial pottery kiln was revealed on the edge of Santa Elena. This is the oldest European type pottery kiln yet discovered in North America north of Mexico. Over four dozen micaceous redware vessels were found inside the kiln, which had collapsed during firing. This kiln, thought to date from 1577 to 1587, offers a valuable opportunity to study the type of vessels in use at Santa Elena at that time. A number of the vessels are unlike any known from the Spanish colonial literature, some being in the Moorish Islamic tradition. Among the interesting forms were fragments of an alembic, revealing that Spaniards at Santa Elena were distilling spirits. This is the oldest evidence of a scientific instrument yet known in North America.
Through a grant from the Department of Defense Legacy Fund, DePratter and South conducted two field seasons at Santa Elena in 1994. In each of these two seasons, large block excavations in the area of the kiln were opened, producing wasters (ceramics broken during the firing process), evidence of a potter's shed, and features relating to kiln activities.
During the spring of 1994, a large-scale shovel testing project was implemented in the areas covered by the 7th, 8th, and 9th holes of the Marine Corps Golf Course which overlays the remains of Santa Elena. A total of 1383 shovel tests were excavated on a 30-foot interval grid covering approximately 35 acres. Materials recovered from these tests allowed identification of the town limits for Santa Elena (covering about 18 to 20 acres), the distribution of pre-sixteenth century Native American occupations, the location of plantation period structures including a probable slave row, and the scatter of Marine Corps materials from a first World War training camp.
Fall of 1996 excavations consisted of a large block unit on the back half of the high status lot excavated in 1991 to 1993. The 1996 block was excavated with the expectation that a kitchen structure would be found, but despite the presence of abundant post holes and food remains, no kitchen could be delineated.
Excavations in Spring 1997 focused on French Charlesfort and the remains of Spanish Fort San Felipe (I) which rest on top of it. Excavations were conducted in the moat of Fort San Felipe and in the area of its southwest bastion. Portions of the Charlesfort moat and storehouse were also exposed, and French ceramics of the period were found during the excavations.
In Fall, 1997, excavations were conducted adjacent to the pottery kiln in a further effort to find the waster pile and evidence for additional structures relating to the operation of the kiln. Neither the waster pile nor relevant structural evidence was recovered, however.
The last two Santa Elena forts were the subject of excavations in Spring, 1998. The first Fort San Marcos (occupied 1577 to c. 1583) is believed to have been located beneath the present 7th fairway on the golf course. While play was temporarily diverted to a nearby practice green, we were able to excavate two large block units in the fairway. Neither of these large blocks revealed clear remains of the fort, but analysis of the artifacts and features exposed is continuing.
Excavations were also conducted in Fort San Marcos (I) which was tested by South in 1979 but which had not been the scene of subsequent excavations. The major goal of the 1998 excavations was to determine the extent of damage resulting from Marine Corps excavations in the 1920s and the erection of a large, granite Charlesfort monument in 1925. We also wanted to determine whether there were remains of earlier Spanish forts [specifically San Salvador and San Felipe (II)] beneath the remains of Fort San Marcos (II). Excavations revealed extensive trenching and earth-moving by the Marines, but significant portions of the fort interior remain intact. Charred timbers and artifacts are evidence that the fort burned at least once, but at present we cannot say whether this relates to San Felipe (I), burned by Native Americans in 1576, or San Marcos (II) which was burned intentionally by the Spaniards when they abandoned the settlement in 1587.
Analysis of collections recovered in the past three field seasons is on-going at our laboratory facilities in Columbia.
For further information on recent research projects see Pastwatch and Legacy articles.