Originally created 04/09/00

Colonial history sits beneath landmarks



HILTON HEAD, S.C. -- Gutierre De Miranda's home doesn't look like much. It doesn't look like anything, in fact.

A few piles of hard dirt and a handful of handcrafted nails are all that's visible of the house of the man who once ruled South Carolina for Spain. The remainder is either buried under the now-abandoned fairways of the Parris Island golf course or has been destroyed by the passage of time.

It's been almost 450 years, after all, since Miranda called the extraordinarily small "mansion" home.

Miranda ruled much of Spain's territories in what was to become South Carolina from his estate in the long-vanished city known as Santa Elena. He owned the city's two largest lots -- 100 feet by 200 feet -- and built two of its nicest houses. For his own home, Miranda built a house 22 feet in diameter; the other, probably for nieces, nephews, ladies in waiting and maybe servants, was approximately the same size.

He furnished his house with the best porcelain dishes available. Miranda's clothes were decorated with gold and copper thread reminiscent of the gaudy outfits Spanish bullfighters still wear. He served his guests eggs, an absolute rarity in the isolated North American settlement, according to archaeologist Stanley South, who has studied the settlement for 21 years.

Indeed, Mr. South says, Miranda probably lived a life of relative luxury during his tenure in Santa Elena.

Of course, that's assuming the house Mr. South and archaeologists with the University of South Carolina's Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology have discovered is really the home of the Lowcountry's one-time governor.

The archaeologists have been digging in the remains of Santa Elena, located on the eastern side of Parris Island well behind the gates for the Marine Corps training center there.

The excavation is intended to answer several questions raised by other diggings there in the past 20 years. For instance, archaeologists ask, where did the city's central road lie? And where did Miranda live?

No one questions whether the archaeologists have discovered a house; the post hole remnants and pottery shards they've found demonstrate that amply enough. But excavation directors Chester DePratter and Mr. South can't say with absolute certainty that the home was Miranda's.

They say they believe it is. Only Miranda had a house worthy of the artifacts they've found, which includes several shards of Ming porcelain from China. At the time, the China was worth three times its weight in silver, Mr. DePratter says.

As for the city's main road, Mr. DePratter said he believes he's found it just west of the house he says Miranda built for his extended family or servants. A straight line of thick, packed clay has yielded more garbage pits or artifacts.

Whatever the result, the discovery of the house and a careful examination of its contents will add to archaeologists' understanding of South Carolina's one-time Spanish rulers, Mr. DePratter said.

After studying the house, Mr. DePratter and Mr. South plan to move on to re-examine the remains of the nearby French Charlesfort, which Mr. South discovered in 1982. The idea there, Mr. DePratter said, is to define the fort's northern and western walls, which might lie beneath the moat for the later Spanish Fort San Marcos.

The entire excavation will be completed by April 28. "We'll be going at it fast and furious," Mr. DePratter said.

To reach the old city, tell Marines at the Parris Island gate you'd like to see the excavation near the golf course. The golf course, incidentally, is being rebuilt to move holes 7, 8, and 9 away from the archaeological site.