Friday, October 15, 2010

Sarah's photo from the field: archaeology on the St. Johns.
The origin myth of the northeast regional center is that our boundary was created in concert with the St. Johns River. The steering committee, in their wisdom, decided that cultural cohesion to my region begins and ends with this geographic feature. Were they right?

For five years now I have thought and pondered the importance of the river, and only this year can I answer without reservation—yes.

Visitors to Florida may erroneously think that it is the sea that is the most influential natural wonder that has affected human habitations. However, it is the river that has done the most to been the basic needs of the human inhabitants over time, providing food, water, and shelter along the shore. 

Sites along the St. Johns River (source: Florida Master Site File 2010)

According to the Florida Master Site File, over 1,500 archaeological sites have been identified along the 310 mile river, and that doesn’t account for unreported sites.  Site types include Archaic prehistoric mounds, missions, forts, shipwrecks, and plantations. In fact, the only site type absent is Paleolithic sites not often found in northeast Florida.

Owl totem replica at Hontoon Island, SP (original on display at Ft. Caroline!)

Archaeological interest in the river spans over a century. While most archies are more familiar with C. B. Moore, he wasn’t the first here to excavate. Jeffries Wyman is credited as the first archaeologist along the river with explorations dating back to the 1860s. In 1868 he published “On the Fresh-Water Shell-Heaps of the St. Johns River, East Florida” in The American Naturalist. C.B. Moore was next to make Florida famous with his intensive study from 1892 to 1918. Dr. Jerry Milanich wrote a succinct review of his work and impact on Florida sites for the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History (read more).

The copper made famous by C. B. Moore, recovered from Mt. Royal.

Archaeologists excavate every season along the banks. Dr. Ken Sassman from University of Florida and Dr. James Davidson, also UF, run field schools every summer. While Dr. Sassman focuses on prehistoric middens up river, Dr. Davidsons work has focus mostly on historic plantations, namely Kingsley Plantation. Field schools such as these ensure that archaeology along the St. Johns is fostered and updated annually.

Behold the glamor of doing research in the river (me and the boys from LAMP).

Besides academic research, archaeological work is done in advancement of earth disturbing activities. When new utility lines, marinas, or bridges are proposed, the banks and bottom lands are evaluated for their impacts to archaeological sites. This could include consulting topographic and areal maps at the very least, or side-scan sonar to shovel probe surveys. One thing is for certain: new sites are discovered and added to the site files every year.

Menendez High School students replicating Maple Leaf site plan on tarp.

Arguably the most significant find is the Maple Leaf. The Maple Leaf is a steam ship that hit a minefield in the river during the Civil War. The ship sank but remained well preserved by the tannic waters around. Jacksonville resident and history enthusiast Keith Holland rediscovered in the 1980s and later ECU’s focused several field schools on documenting the site. Collections from the Maple Leaf can be seen on shore at the Mandarin Museum at Walter B. Jones Historical Park or at the Museum of Science and History in downtown Jacksonville. makes reading up on the wreck easy by maintining a list of articles to read on line.

Wooden chain found on the Maple Leaf (curated at DHR in Tallahassee).

Recently the St. Johns River Summit met in Jacksonville to coordinate future efforts to save and promote the river. Besides archaeology, the river is in danger from salinization and disputes over water rights. The coordinated effort celebrated this unique river in Florida and continued dialog between the many interest groups that have a stake in the river.

Loading up for underwater project at Crescent Lake, part of SJR.

One of the more interesting sessions was on the ecological value of the river as a destination for residents and visitors. This month Visit Florida launched their new trails website. Consider the river next time you want to get out and active. Ride your bike along the River Walk in Jax, or visit up river to the Palatka area to put in a boat and explore by kayak. Be aware that 15,000 years of human habitation surround you on all sides and link you, no matter where you are, into the greater scale of northeast Florida.

Herb Hiller makes the case for ecotourism in Florida at St. Johns River Summit.
Governor Martinez addresses St. Johns River partners during summit lunch.
Check our website for upcoming "Archaeology Along the St. Johns River" lecture near you!

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