Thursday, July 28, 2011

When excavating the old town, nothing is ever simple.

It's been a while, but I finally got back to the Colonial Spanish Quarter today to check out the City of St. Augustine's latest dig.  Carl Halbirt and his loyal crew of volunteers continue an investigation that began last winter, when the City and National Park Service collaborated for plans to create a trolley stop across the street from the Castillo de San Marcos.  At that time, Carl made an unprecedented discovery--he and his team turned up evidence of some kind of fortification (not necessarily an official fort) that was even older than the Castillo! 

The crew continues to chase the fortification's posts to get a clearer picture of how the Spanish used this area in the late 16th century, but that's not all they get.  St. Augustine's Archaeology Division often works on what turn out to be multi-component sites--spaces that have been used and reused by different people and for various purposes over time.  This excavation area is just such a site. 

Carl and his volunteers excavate a variety of features.

When I arrived this morning, I saw some of the City's volunteers already hard at work in the area that had been stripped of its top soil for excavation.  On the ground surface all around them were soil stains outlined in string--each one denoting a feature.  Some of the features stood alone, untouched by the soil stains nearby.  Others had clearly overlapped--in fact, volunteers were absorbed with excavating some of these, being very careful to dig out only one feature at a time.  It's important to excavate each feature by itself to determine its age and purpose. 

Foreground: Carl examines a possible pig roast pit, disturbed by an
intrusive post feature on its west (left) side.
Background: Moses excavates one of four features that overlap.

So how do features intrude on one another in the first place?  At this site, for example, we see the earliest colonial use as a fortification--either as a formal fort or as a defensive wall, built in the late 1500s.  That fortification was made by putting massive wooden posts in the ground--big enough to support thick walls and maybe artillery.  This fortification was likely no longer used by the time the Castillo was built, so would have been obsolete 100 years later.  It may have been torn down, with little to no evidence left of where it stood.  So when someone decided to use that stretch of land for another purpose, new holes were dug into the ground, sometimes on or right next to where those massive posts once stood.  By the time archaeologists get there, nothing is left of the wooden posts and other features--we just see overlapping soil stains of different colors & textures. 

At the Colonial Spanish Quarter site, I saw dozens of features.  In addition to the 16th century fortification posts, Carl had a line of postmolds to a structure that dated from 1725-1750.  A possible pig roast pit had been intruded upon by a different post.  One of the fortification posts had been intruded upon by an unidentified pit, which had been dug into by one of those 18th century posts. 

The soil stain at the top of the photo represents an 18th century postmold, intruded upon by a pit (the excavated hole)
that also disturbed one of the 15th century fortification postmolds.

Probably the craziest series of intrusive features, though, brought us from the early 1st Spanish Period to (almost) modern day.  We again started with one of those 16th century fortification post molds.  On one side, the post was disturbed by a dog burial from the late 1800s or early 1900s (before 1910).  On the other side, an 18th century pit intruded on it.  That miscellaneous pit, in turn had been disrupted by a shovel test dug by Carl in 2005 as he carried out the earliest excavations of that site!

The dog burial (left) intrudes upon one of the original fortification posts.  Note: most of the dog's remains were excavated prior to my arrival.

I watched the volunteers carefully extract the contents of each feature before we mapped and photographed them.  As the crew packed up at the end of the day's work, I asked Carl what he would like to share about the site, and he pointed out yet another kind of encroachment.  Those posts that date from 1725-1750 reflect a residential structure built as little as 30 years after the Castillo de San Marcos was finished.  He says it shows that people were already starting to creep in on the designated space around the fort--kept clear because it would have been within firing range for guns and cannon!

When he mentioned that, I reflected on the morning I had spent trying to focus while jumping out of my skin every time the Spanish Quarter's re-enactors demonstrated musket firing.  It occurred to me that unlike those intrusions in the ground, which go unnoticed until they are meticulously unearthed by archaeologists, a residence that intruded on the firing zone of the Castillo could not be so peaceful--there's NO way that being that close could go unnoticed.

If you missed the St. Augustine Record's article about the dig in January, find it here.
Also read our February blog about the City's finds here.

Want to get involved? Join the St. Augustine Archaeological Association and find out how to volunteer with Carl!

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