Tuesday, April 12, 2011

One of the best things about archaeology is the chance to get your hands dirty…even better when the archaeology is almost in your backyard. Chances to work on projects like the dig in Old Town Fernandina are what make Florida archaeology so unique. We get to investigate questions about those who lived right here.

The UNF Archaeology Lab provided us an opportunity to work with a donated collection of pottery sherds so we could begin to piece together – literally – the puzzle of what the village in Old Town looked like and how it fit in with the culture of Florida about 1000 years ago. We spent all semester looking forward to excavating a shell midden during the Bicentennial of Old Town. Our previous shovel tests on the site confirmed that we would find St. Johns II and Ocmulgee pottery. Both of these types point to a settlement of native people that lived around AD 900-1250 who were a part of a culture that was found around the mouth of the St. Johns River. We believe these people had a strong connection to the Mississippian Culture that spanned the eastern half of the US during the same time, despite having different political structures and subsistence practices (that is, what they ate).


Dr. Keith Ashley lays out the grid for Units 1 and 2 on the first morning of the dig. The road was cut into the midden and there is about a three foot drop.
We excavated a 1 x 4 meter unit and a 1 x 2 meter unit. The artifacts were consistent with what we expected to find: St. Johns II ceramics, Ocmulgee ceramics as well as other native pottery types like Orange. Given that the property has had human occupation for a few thousand years, we expected to find a large array of objects and weren’t disappointed. The Light Bright pegs and modern building materials (aka legos) were in abundance in the first layer.

Michael Davis peels off the first layer in Unit 1 as Amber Shelton (left) and Shaza Wester Davis screen for artifacts.
 Once we got past the majority of the modern disturbance we were able to make sense of the composition of the shell midden. Mostly comprised of oyster shell, we also found quahog clam among others and a large amount of bone. Most of the bone was small mammal and fish. However, we did find a large vertebrae and possible a few associated ribs at the bottom of the midden. Early speculation was that it was dolphin. In the north wall, we found a large deposit of clam shell, perhaps one of the first clam roasts in Old Town!

Amber Shelton and Caitlin Nuetzi begin the process of mapping the large clam deposit.
 All of this will tell us what their diet was like. Unlike the Mississippian culture to the north, early northeast Florida natives did not have large scale agriculture and corn had not made its way this far south yet. So the question of diet plays an important part in understanding how they lived. Judging from the amount of shell, they did pretty well! The marshy environment appeared to have provided the people with a wealth of food. However, compared to the maize cultures to the north, villages would have remained relatively small to avoid depleting their food sources.

The fire pit was left in place so it could be mapped.
While we were excavating, we found a possible fire pit. This contained a large amount of burned shell and bone. We took this part out separately, bagging it so we can water screen it at the UNF Archaeology Lab. We will run water through a smaller screen to find tiny bones, seeds and charcoal that will allow us to figure out what this actually was.

The north side wall profile at the end of excavation of Units 1 and 2.
After we reached the bottom of the shell midden, we leveled the floor and mapped the side walls. This will give us a way of seeing how the midden was shaped and if there were any features that stand out. We noticed that the upper portion of the midden was very disturbed and had a lot of crushed shell. As we got more towards the center of the midden, the shell was mostly whole and unbroken. This was also where we found most of the large sherds.

Volunteers and students enter artifacts into the Field Specimen log for identification later.
After each level is dug, the artifacts are entered into a log so we know where they came from when we are analyzing them back at the lab. Knowing where each piece comes from will let us reconstruct where the most pieces were found and what types. This could tell us where on the property the greatest concentration was and where they threw most of their trash. Typically they created shell middens near their settlement and so finding the midden is very important to discovering where they lived. Maybe one day we will be able to excavate a structure!
Units 1 and 2 were excavated to the end of the midden which was about 30 cm below the surface. The side walls were mapped and then we filled it back in.

Unit 3 had some interesting features in the floor. The color to the left is possible native. However, the dark square may actually have been a previous excavation or a modern structure. The dimensions were about 55 cm by 50 cm.
Unit 3 had Orange pottery, which is about 4000 years old as well as modern artifacts such as pottery that was used by Europeans after the establishment of the historic site. It also had some interesting features in the floor. The rectangular dark stain may have been a previous excavation given the dimensions or it may have been the edge of a modern structure. The color change was consistent throughout the profile.

After such a successful dig, we take the artifacts back to the lab and analyze them. Each piece is identified by its pottery series (for example, St. Johns II or Ocmulgee) and then weighed, measured and given its own catalog number. Sometimes, we get lucky and two or more pieces fit back together. After we mend them, we get a better picture of what the vessel would have looked like. It is so cool to hold a part of a pot that the last person who held it may have been making fish and oyster stew for their family!


Amber Shelton and Shaza Davis analyzing pottery sherds in the UNF Archaeology Lab.
Post and photos by: Shaza Wester Davis and Amber Shelton, University of North Florida

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