From the Savannah Morning News:
Looking for Pearls:
Spanish mariners leave mystery on Tybee
By Ben Coggins, Savannah Morning News, October 10, 2014
Do you remember the Uncle Remus story about Brer Rabbit and his misadventures with the silent Tar Baby? One after another of the aggravated Brer Rabbit’s hands and feet got hopelessly stuck until he tricked Brer Fox into getting him loose.
Since 2006, Tybee Island resident Frank Drudi has been captivated by a different sort of Tar Baby — one that is 500 years old and from Trinidad.
When Frank’s neighbor was digging a swimming pool, Frank said he could put the sand from the hole onto his empty lot. When the sand was spread, he found three heavy rough discs, clearly man-made. On the edge of each was an impressed seal that Frank recognized as a Spanish Cross.
That started the research wheels turning. What were these artifacts, dug up barely a hundred yards from the Tybee lighthouse? And what clues did the four letters S-O-C-G in the quadrants around the cross provide?
Daniel Elliott of the Lamar Institute performed an exhaustive archaeological survey of Frank’s lot, now described as the Drudi tract. He used ground-penetrating radar and systematic sampling to look at Frank’s property, but nothing else turned up.
Frank discovered that the discs were made of tar that Spanish mariners of the 16th century used to seal leaks in their ships’ hulls. Tar that came from a huge pitch lake at La Brea, Trinidad, discovered by Columbus in 1498.
From poring over history books and talking to experts on early Spanish exploration of the Southeast coast, Frank has arrived at a persuasive theory of when and how the tar objects came to Tybee.
In 1521, two navigators sailing together out of the Caribbean, under contract to different aristocrats, both claimed land surrounding Winyah Sound near Georgetown, S.C. Claiming land for the crown and the sponsor involved performing a standard ceremonial ritual and recording the event by ship’s notary.
A legal dispute followed over who had rights to explore and settle the vast coastal area. The king of Spain, Charles of Ghent, decided in favor of Luis Vasquez de Ayllon, whose captain had performed the ritual hours ahead of the other claimant.
Having the authority to explore this barely-charted coast, in 1525 Ayllon sent Pedro de Quejo to do further reconnaissance and double-check the desirability of Winyah Bay for settlement. Taking no chances on establishing claims this time, Ayllon instructed Quejo to place stone markers with the king’s name and the date.
Not a single one of those stone markers has been found. But according to Quejo’s logs, his first stop was at latitude 32.0 degrees.
Sound familiar? That’s Tybee.
This means that on May 3, 1525, the first Europeans to set foot on Georgia soil did it on Tybee sand. And the river that Quejo named the Rio de la Cruz on that date is the Savannah River.
Frank figures that, when no stones were around to erect as markers, Quejo formed markers of his own. A composite of sand, grass, and the caulking tar he had on board. And what more natural point for the claim than the location that was later chosen in Oglethorpe’s day for the lighthouse?
In July 1526, Ayllon set sail from Hispaniola with six ships and 600 settlers straight to Winyah Bay. But the mother ship foundered on a sand bar before landing. Many supplies were lost, the area was not as suitable for agriculture as described and there were too few Native Americans with whom to work and trade. So, Ayllon improvised a Plan B.
His expedition sailed south searching for a better location. On Sept. 29, 1526, they established the settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape. Somewhere along the Georgia coast, maybe on Sapelo Sound, and named perhaps for the Guale Indians of the area. Ayllon himself died of illness there. The colony lasted about six weeks before the survivors sailed home, and its site has never been found.
Maybe Frank Drudi’s markers hold a clue. Frank has looked long and hard at these tar babies, trying to coax more answers from them. But like Brer Rabbit, now he’s a bit stuck.
When he heard about the West Chatham Middle School students who were studying early Spanish missions along the Georgia coast, he decided to see if their young minds could bring new eyes and ideas to answer some of his questions. Why haven’t more of these tar objects been discovered elsewhere? What do the letters S-O-C-G mean?
Frank deputized me to carry the tar markers, almost 60 pounds each, like they were Faberge eggs, to show to the students. It was a good move.
The students and their teachers, Mrs. Jacquelin Harden and Mr. Josh Wonders, were very interested to see these old relics that are, so far, one-of-a-kind.
And they offered fresh insights. Samantha Jenkins suggested searching for references to “rough asphalt cylinders” in explorers’ narratives and that the letters may be initials for a church. Francheska Gonzalez suggested that there are more and larger markers nearby and always on the southern shores of their rivers.
Several of the students speak Spanish, so they may discover Spanish-language journals, diaries or records that refer to the markers or the voyages. Regan Gayadeen said she has family in Trinidad and would get them involved to look for similar tar objects in museums and collections around La Brea.
Diamond Folston and Sade Baker had experience making charcoal rubbings of cemetery headstones, so they took rubbings of the Spanish crosses to study more closely. Jack Steuwe commented on the markers’ plasticity, and Nicholas Bergeron on their symbolism.
Some students were intrigued whether the seals stamped in the markers were made ahead of time in Hispaniola or on board the ships as situations changed. All three of the Drudi objects have the same imprint, but in other locations might different letters be used? And maybe we should search for the wooden stampers that were carved to impress the seals — like searching for the branding iron and not the brand.
Could the markers have been moved at all by Indians? Are the letters really S-O-C-G, or are they D-O-C-G? Does C-G stand for Carlos de Gante (King Charles of Ghent) as Frank assumes or for something else? Could the G stand for Gualdape? The S for San or Santa?
Students Cameron Myers, John Winters, and John Tyner lingered to look at the markers from all sides. They pointed out the wood impressions on the undersides and holes that might have been for lifting them. They suggested X-raying the markers to see if they contained medals or coins put in by the seamen who fabricated them.
They suggested that 3-D scans be made of the markers, so that they could be 3-D printed and examined by other researchers. And they suggested that, with high definition, perhaps the wood grain and grass imprints might help tell the story.
Tybee DPW Superintendent Danny Carpenter is equally fascinated. He has found hundreds of artifacts from the Civil War, the Fort Screven era, and even from the lost Martello Tower.
He says, “These tar markers are a Tybee mystery, like the Tybee Bomb. But I think they are far more significant.”
He and Frank are hopeful that the West Chatham students make a breakthrough, crack this Da Vinci code and get the tar babies to reveal their secrets.
For more background information on Frank Drudi’s discovery, read and learn at:
127. Archaeological Reconnaissance at the Drudi Tract, Tybee Island, Chatham County, Georgia. [With Supplement: Identity of the Drudi Objects, 2009]. By Daniel T. Elliott, 2008. (2.6 MB).