THE ELUSIVEFORT CAROLINE; University of North Florida Archaeologists Dig and Dig and Come Up with - Nothing - but It's So Tantalizing

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel

It's Jacksonville's oldest, most enduring mystery, and it may never be solved: Where is Fort Caroline, the French settlement on the marshy edge of a vast continent far from home in 1564 - before St. Augustine and Roanoke, before Jamestown and Plymouth?

After spending almost a year looking, Robert "Buzz" Thunen and Keith Ashley are readying a report to the state on their recent digs.

Nothing.

The University of North Florida archaeologists found not a thing.

The French built a new home not far from the mouth of what's now called the St. Johns River. They made wine there and ogled native women there, starved there and died there. Yet ... rien. Nothing.

The Spanish who slaughtered them took over their fort for four years. They lived there, too, until a vengeful French force came back and killed those who didn't flee. Yet ... nada. Nothing.

A year from its 450th anniversary, the doomed fort refuses to give up its location. The archaeologists admit they're discouraged, that it could have all been washed into the river. They admit it would be tempting to give up.

Yet ... yet ... at least now they know more about where the fort wasn't. And that might help them, or someone, find where it actually was.

Searchers now believe it has to be farther east, toward the ocean, than many have thought for so long. That's progress.

But in a daunting landscape of shifting marshes and thick subtropical growth, will it ever be found?

Thunen sighed. He was part of a UNF team, funded by a $43,000 historic preservation grant, that dug hundreds of holes while looking. "Well, it's not over yet," he said. "But I'm not holding my breath."

FOLLOWING THE CLUES

The mystery of Fort Caroline has a plot worthy of a thick novel for summertime reading.

There are stories of exploration, deprivation, bloodshed and vengeance. There are archaeologists who search in mosquito-ridden thickets, scholars who pore over ancient archives in Spain and old aerial photos of Florida. There are amateur treasure hunters and historians, sure they're so close to discovering the truth.

There are clues in the diaries of the people who were there, in old maps that show a landscape different from today. And what about the tantalizing mention of the old fort ruins in an 1830 diary of the nephew of planter Zephaniah Kingsley?

The mystery deepens.

Several of those who look for the fort admit they've awoken thinking about it. It's happened to John Whitehurst. He's an archaeologist at the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, the national park where the ancient fort was long thought to be.

"We just haven't looked at the right spot," he said. "It's out there somewhere."

FINALLY, EVIDENCE

UNF archaeologists, their students and dedicated amateurs over the decades have dug and searched. They've gone from west of the replica fort at the national park, and east into the hiking trails of the Theodore Roosevelt Area. All those people, all that work? Nothing.

Well, almost nothing.

It's a smooth, beige piece of pottery, found by an amateur archaeologist more than 50 years ago in material dredged from the St. Johns. The pottery sat in a University of Florida collection for decades, until it caught the eye of an alert UNF grad student.

Her professors sent it to Chester DePratter, a University of South Carolina archaeologist. He knows old French pottery: He'd helped find Charlesfort, another French fort from the 1560s, in South Carolina.

He confirmed it. It's French, from that period.

It's a small artifact, about an inch long. But its implications are huge.

"It represents the first French artifact that relates to that time period," Ashley said. It's the only physical evidence that the French were ever on the St. Johns.

'DON'T BE DISCOURAGED'

The discovery of Charlesfort was announced in 1995, giving hope to the Fort Caroline searchers that their work isn't in vain. …