Friday, October 29, 2010

I found myself all alone in the office on a Friday, so I decided to treat myself to a little adventure. There are lots of great places in St. Augustine for my Front Door Fieldtrips, but I have one abiding favorite: wherever the City’s Archaeology Division is working. It doesn’t seem to matter where he is, City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt is always digging up something new about the oldest city.

Right now the city is finishing up about a month’s work at the Fountain of Youth, so I hopped on my FPAN bike and pedaled over there. When I arrived, I found a half-dozen volunteers from the St. Augustine Archaeological Association hard at work. They were digging, screening, and recording site information. Lucky for me, they weren’t too busy to show me some pretty interesting discoveries.

Strolling past the five units they have open, I got a clear sense of the long history of human occupation in the area. It’s no surprise these days that waterfront property is a hot commodity, but I found myself face-to-face with evidence of what may be a universal truth throughout history: Floridians love bayfront property. Okay, so technically some of them were Floridians before it was even Florida, but I still think it holds true. In one large unit, I could see the small postholes that Carl and crew had uncovered in weeks prior. They were small, in two parallel lines, and hundreds of years old. According to Halbirt, they were prehistoric features that may have made up the structure of a rack for drying animals or their skins.

These two units show the postholes to a structure from
the Mission of Nombre de Dios.

Then we came to the “new” features. In two adjacent units, the crew had found a series of linear postholes from a structure related to Mission Nombre de Dios (1587-1728). Even better, they found where the row of posts turned 90 degrees—so they could trace the shape and direction of the building. Corners are a big deal when archaeologists are trying to make sense of features like these. They can help us understand the layout of a building, start to indicate its size, and even help us figure out basic questions like which side was the inside of a structure and which side was outside.

Finally, I checked out one of the two active units. Janet was plugging away, cleaning up a linear feature made of clam and oyster shell. It was a particularly odd discovery for a couple of reasons: first, it had a posthole right in the middle. Second, the shell lined up perfectly with one of the rows of postholes they had exposed before. It was completely different, yet entirely the same. I needed Carl to make sense of it, and of course he complied.

Janet cleans the shell feature.  A posthole once stood in the area just above Janet's hand, where the shell stops.
He explained that the packed shell was likely part of a prehistoric midden. When the people who built this structure dug a posthole into the midden, they either left some shell in place or put it back around the post. The packed shell then became a foundation for the wall that was built over it.

It may not seem like much, but in multi-component sites like this, where different people have used the same land over time, finds like this are pretty cool. They show people adapting to their environment and changing the landscape. They also show how the people who lived there later were affected by earlier occupation. At this site, we see prehistoric Timucuans using estuarine resources for food and designating this space as a discard area. The mission Indians who came later had to deal with thick, brittle, dense shell while digging postholes. They transformed the midden into wall foundation just by leaving it in place.

One of the neatest things about this multi-component site is how the people who own it now hope to use it in the future. The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park hopes to protect the units but leave them open and visible. That way visitors can see some of what archaeology has taught us about this area, where Pedro Menendez first encountered the Timucuan village of Seloy and set up his encampment.

For more information, check out these links:

St. Augustine’s Archaeology Program:

Fountain of Youth Archaeology Park:
St. Augustine Archaeology Association:

2 Responses so far.

  1. We are really enjoying the dig here at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. Amazing history under the ground at the Birthplace of St. Augustine.

  2. Thanks for the comment!

    Check back with us end of January- we should have updates on FOY and be out at the end of the month with the GPR.

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