Thu., October 17, 2013 4:42pm (EDT)

Erosion Threatens Coastal History
By Orlando Montoya
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Updated: 4 months ago

ST. CATHERINES ISLAND, Ga.  —  
Anthropologist David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History and Bishop Gregory Hartmayer talk on the beach of St. Catherines Island.  (photo Eric Nauert)
Anthropologist David Hurst Thomas of the American Museum of Natural History and Bishop Gregory Hartmayer talk on the beach of St. Catherines Island. (photo Eric Nauert)
One of Georgia's Spanish Colonial sites is slipping into the coastal marsh.

Archaeologists are documenting what remains of the 16th Century settlement.

To tell the story, however, we have to get a little religion first.

About two dozen people pray in a grassy field.

"Aleluia, aleluia," the worshippers sing.

They're sitting on wooden pews.

In the ground below them, lie the remains of a Catholic church that burned centuries ago.

We're on remote St. Catherines Island, a 30 minute boat ride from the mainland south of Savannah.

Only two people live here, the island manager and his wife.

But, on this day, Bishop Gregory Hartmayer has invited pilgrims to celebrate a mass for Spanish priests killed here during a 1597 Native American uprising.


St Catherines Island Vimeo from Eric Nauert on Vimeo.

"These were men of principle," Hartmayer says. "These were men who believed the teachings of the church to the point where they were willing to sacrifice their lives."

The Vatican is considering canonizing the priests.

But while Rome could take its time to decide their sainthood, their long-buried church might be washed away.

A young archaeologist uses a trowel to brush and scrape away dirt and artifacts.

He's where a building likely stood, not far from the church.

But today, it's perched on the bank of a creek.

Every year, the creek erodes ten more feet of this site where artifacts dating centuries are still being discovered.

If no one were here, things like glass beads and pottery would just fall into the creek.

Anthropologist David Hurst Thomas is leading the excavation.

"We're experiencing the kind of erosion that this place hasn't seen in 5,000 years," Thomas says.

Thomas works for the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

He famously discovered the church site in 1986.

Now, the private foundation that runs St. Catherines Island says at the rate the area is eroding, parts of the site could be gone within 50 years and all of it by the end of the century.

"I don't know that we have a more important place in terms of its role in Georgia history, its role in United States history," Thomas says. "It's one of the most important Spanish Colonial sites that we have and it would just be a shame to lose it."

The island's private manager says one option to protect the site would be to stabilize the shore with rocks and dirt.

Several miles off from the dig site on the island's opposite side, a wind-whipped high tide crashes against sand dunes.

The manager, Royce Hayes, says for decades the erosion was slow and so he ignored it.

Now, it's picking up pace and people ask if anything could have been done sooner.

"What have you been doing? Weren't you having erosion before this?" Hayes says. "And of course, we were. It just didn't seem to be as alarming as it is now."

If Hayes wants to stabilize the shore, he'll have to get a state permit to do it.

And that could take time.

For the Catholic faithful like Gillian Brown, a church archivist, a solution can't be found soon enough.

"Little by little, every artifact that they find is testimony to the way people lived," Brown says. "So I'm hopeful that some way will be found to protect them against these inroads of tide and time."

The St. Catherines Island Foundation could decide what to do about the erosion later this year.