Spring 1997 Excavations
In June, 1996, Dr. John Palms, President of the University of South Carolina, announced the discovery of Charlesfort by SCIAA archaeologists, Chester B. DePratter and Stanley South. This announcement, which garnered national and international attention, culminated a search begun by South in 1979.
Charlesfort, a small French outpost occupied from 1562 to 1563, was built near present-day Beaufort South Carolina by Captain Jean Ribault and his men. Ribault and his two ships were involved in a mission of exploration without orders to establish a settlement, but he was so impressed by Port Royal Sound that he left behind a small garrison composed of volunteers while he returned to France for reinforcements. His return was delayed by a religious war then raging in France, and the small group of men left on Port Royal Sound ultimately grew tired of awaiting his return; they mutinied, killed their commander, built a boat, and sailed for France after occupying Charlesfort for less than a year.
So why did it take 17 year to discover the location of Charlesfort? First, the fort itself was rather simple, constructed as a temporary fortification to house 27 men. It was constructed by Ribault and his 150 man crew in less than a month. Second, it was occupied for less than a year by a small number of people, so that the number of features and amount of garbage and other debris associated with it would of course be sparse. Third, maps, artwork, documentary sources provide ambiguous and contradictory information on the location of the fort. And finally, it has a later Spanish fort, part of the Spanish colonial settlement of Santa Elena, built directly on top of it. The debris and construction features associated with this Spanish fort (Fort San Felipe, occupied 1566-1570) obscured the remains of Charlesfort.
Stanley South found Fort San Felipe and excavated portions of it in 1979, 1982, 1983, and 1984. During those excavations, he found a ditch beneath the wall of the Spanish strong house within the fort, and he found that to be perplexing. He also noted in his reports that there were occasional ceramic sherds that were not of the expected Spanish types, and he even suggested that some of those might be French. As it turns out, some of these sherds were indeed French. We now know that additional stoneware sherds excavated by South and thought by him to be nineteenth century stoneware were in fact 16th century stoneware.
DePratter joined South in the search for Charlesfort in 1989. After an involved and unsuccessful search along part of Parris Island's shoreline, the search was focused on the Santa Elena site. According to DePratter's work, the Santa Elena site was in the right place, and South had already identified a limited number of possible French artifacts there. Further analysis of South's previous excavations in Fort San Felipe and the materials he found led to the announcement of Charlesfort's discovery in 1996. In Spring, 1997, DePratter and South returned to Parris Island to further investigate the remains of Spanish Fort San Felipe and to see if they could identify the moat, buildings, and other remains of Charlesfort that lay buried beneath the Spanish fort. Armed with a research design anchored in South's previous work on the site, they selectively reopened portions of previously excavated areas and opened new trenches and blocks as well.
Excavations ran from May 30 to June 5, a total of nearly ten weeks. Chester DePratter and Stanley South served as project directors; James Legg served as field director; Mike Stoner, William Radisch, and Linda "Polly" Worthy served as field assistants, and Marilyn Pennington and Carol McCanless served as tour guides and field assistants. Thirty volunteer crew members provided a total of fifty-three person weeks of labor. The excavations were visited by nearly 1,000 persons, each of whom received a guided site tour and orientation lecture.
The large 15-foot-wide five-foot-deep moat surrounding Fort San Felipe was re-examined to see if it might not be a French moat re-dug by the Spanish. That turned out to not be the case, but in those excavations, remnants of the smaller French defensive ditch were uncovered. This French ditch was approximately eight feet across and two feet deep. The ditch found by South in 1983, beneath the Spanish strong house wall we now know is part of this French defensive structure.
Time did not allow exposure of the entire French defensive ditch, but portions of it were excavated during the 1997 field season. Within this ditch, DePratter and South found the remains of the French strong house built by Ribault in 1562. It measures at least 14 feet by 40 feet, and shows evidence of having been rebuilt once. This correlates with documentary evidence which states that the original building burned during the French occupation but was rebuilt in a single day with the assistance of local Indians.
The number of French artifacts so far identified from the Charlesfort/Fort San Felipe excavations is not large. Fewer than one hundred stoneware sherds and a handful of earthenware sherds have been assigned to French types. Identification of additional materials awaits further research in the archaeological literature as well as continuing contacts with European archaeologists.
At the present time, no additional excavations are planned for the remains of either Charlesfort of Fort San Felipe. There are still unresolved issues relating to the size and layout of the defensive ditch and the strong house it encloses, but as is usual in archaeology, we never get to dig up everything. Time and funding limits restrict our ability to fully excavate this part of the site right now. Perhaps in a few years we will return to discover more about the long lost but now discovered Charlesfort.