SCIAA & SEF Team Up to Search for Le Prince Shipwreck in Port Royal Sound

NOAA, South Carolina Institute of Archaeology & Anthropology, Santa Elena Foundation
Shoals and Shipwrecks, University of South Carolina launches marine archaeological survey off Port Royal Sound.

 UPDATE, APRIL 2020 — This research project is experiencing some delay due to the Pandemic but will resume as soon as possible.

The South Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of South Carolina, Columbia will conduct a two-year search for shipwrecks offshore Port Royal Sound, South Carolina. Extending about seven miles offshore into the Atlantic Ocean, the entrance shoals at Port Royal Sound have proved to be  a “ship trap” since the earliest days of European exploration along the southeastern U.S. coastline. Historical documents suggest approximately forty vessels from the 16th to 19th centuries met their fate on and around this treacherous shoal complex with evocative names such as Martins Industry, Great North Breakers, and Cole’s Care. Shipwrecks include a French galleon called Le Prince that wrecked in 1577, the HM brig Colibri that sank on the shoals during the War of 1812, and the bark Marcia loaded with a cargo of stone and part of the Great Stone Fleet sent by the Union navy to obstruct southern ports during the Civil War. Interspersed amongst these shipwrecks lie numerous other casualties of the shoals.

The project is called “Shoals and Shipwrecks: Archaeological Explorations off Port Royal Sound, South Carolina,” and  is under the direction of James Spirek, the state underwater archaeologist and head of the Maritime Research Division at the institute.

“The resources to explore for Le Prince and other unfortunates lost on the shoals permit a sustained effort to advance our knowledge and understanding of the maritime archaeology and history of Port Royal Sound, South Carolina, and the U.S.,” said Spirek.

Other key institute personnel include Ryan Bradley, underwater archaeologist, and Dr. Chester DePratter, research archaeologist.

“This is a great opportunity to bridge  the land archaeology with underwater archaeological investigations, particularly related to early Spanish colonial endeavors associated with the 16th century settlement site of Santa Elena , “said DePratter, director of the excavations at the Charlesfort/Santa Elena  archaeological site on present-day Parris Island.

The research team seeks to continue and expand efforts to locate shipwrecks and other structures, sites, and objects of archaeological and historical significance in the area. With funding, they aim to support preservation efforts by recording and identifying their discoveries, enabling more in-depth investigations and mitigation in the future. The team will use advanced marine remote-sensing technology and visual inspections in the search area, which includes both state and federal waters. They will complement this work with historical research to develop the maritime historical context of the region.

A significant partner in the project is the Santa Elena History Center based in Beaufort is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to educating the public about the 16th century Spanish colonial presence at Santa Elena and other time periods of South Carolina and Beaufort’s history.

“Our collaborative efforts to discover, promote, and preserve this research and to educate our visitors are very valuable, especially the story of Le Prince, to create a better understanding of many significant stories during 500 years of American history, with many occurring here in Beaufort” said Megan Morris, director of the Santa Elena Foundation and History Center.

In addition to filling in knowledge gaps regarding the region’s historical maritime activities, such as transport, trade, and warfare, findings from this project will also be used to inform state and federal seafloor management decisions. Resource managers will be able to use this information to balance uses and minimize conflicts between the preservation of these archaeological remnants and competing interests in the area’s mineral resources, for example beach quality sand needed to rebuild local beaches.

Another important mission of the team is to engage the public through a variety of educational and outreach opportunities to promote an awareness and appreciation of the maritime and historical archaeological legacy in Port Royal Sound. The information derived from the project will provide the foundation for informing the public about ongoing progress and results delivered through various mediums including newsletter articles, social media postings, a webpage devoted to the project, as well as public and professional lectures. The project team will also contribute to NOAA’s Ocean Explorer website ( The team will also develop a short film about the project hosted on the institute’s YouTube Channel and at the center.

Project findings will also be incorporated into the institute’s educational programming “SUBMERGED: The Underwater Archaeology of South Carolina,” that targets middle school students in underserved school districts throughout the Palmetto State.

“The process of fieldwork and research associated with this underwater archaeological exploration will augment our educational offerings and provide students with a greater understanding of the blending of science, archaeology, and history to gain a deeper understanding of our past,” said Bradley.

A formal report documenting the scope and results will be made available for download at the conclusion of the project.