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Archeologists find 16th-century fort San Marcos

Wednesday, July 27, 2016 - 10:28am

A team of archaeologists led by University of South Carolina's Chester DePratter and UGA's Victor Thompson has located the remains of a Spanish fort erected in 1577 in the Spanish town of Santa Elena, on present-day Parris Island, S.C. For decades, attempts to find it have failed, and Fort San Marcos stayed hidden until new technology brought it to light:

San Marcos is one of five Spanish forts built sequentially at Santa Elena over its 21-year occupation. DePratter and Thompson have conducted research at Santa Elena since 2014 to find the fort that was founded in 1577 by Pedro Menédez Márquez, the governor of Spanish La Florida. Their discovery sheds new light on the oldest, most northern Spanish settlement in the Americas, built to thwart French exploration into the New World.

Márquez arrived in October 1577 at the abandoned town of Santa Elena with two ships carrying pre-fabricated posts and heavy planking. He erected Fort San Marcos in six days in defense against a possible Native American attack such as the one that forced the abandonment of the town a year earlier. The town had flourished, nearing 400 residents, since its establishment more than a decade earlier in 1566 by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had founded Spanish La Florida and St. Augustine the year before. In 1571 it became the capital of Spanish Florida, and it remained the capital until 1576.

"I have been looking for San Marcos since 1993, and new techniques and technologies allowed for a fresh search," said DePratter, who conducts research through USC's South Carolina Institute for Archaeology and Anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. "Pedro Menéndez didn't leave us with a map of Santa Elena, so remote sensing is allowing us to create a town plan that will be important to interpreting what happened here 450 years ago and for planning future research."

There is already a lot of great coverage of this story - and rightly so, as it changes the timeline for the northern-most Spanish settlement in North America. Great work - technology and intuition connected with perseverence. Congratulations to the research team and especially to the graduate students and early-career researchers taking part in such an important discovery and publication.

Image: UGA doctoral candidate Jake Lulewicz and UGA doctoral student Isabelle Lulewicz running the gradiometer (magnetic survey) at Santa Elena.

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