Monday, December 24, 2012

Here's the next installment of my three-part interview with Carl.  Dive in to find about some of the most compelling excavations he's carried out in more than two decades as City Archaeologist in St. Augustine.


What is the oldest site you’ve excavated in the city? 

This would be a prehistoric Native American site situated along the western bank of the intercoastal waterway dating roughly 4,000 years ago.  The site was occupied by hunter-gatherers who exploited tidal estuaries, which were fairly extensive along the Florida coastline.  They probably were not at any one location for more than a month or two; however, repeated use of the area over several hundred years results in the formation of dense archaeological deposits.


What’s your most recent dig? 

Our most recent excavation was at a property along 74 Spanish Street and was in response to the construction of a large deck system in the backyard.  This was not our first excavation on that property.  In  2011, an excavation occurred at the front of the property where a structure was going to be built. 

Sarah excavates a British Period well at 74 Spanish Street.  In the foreground are remnants of a 19th-century post hole (center), a 19th-century trash deposit (front right), and an early 18th-century trash deposit (front left).  Photo courtesy of the City of St. Augustine's Archaeology Division.

What did you find out at that site?

A variety of archaeological features were documented during the two projects dating back to the late 1600s.  When combined with adjacent properties examined by the city since 2007 a model of how the area adjacent to one of St. Augustine’s 18th-century defensive lines (the Rosario Line) evolve can be reconstructed.

You’ve excavated a lot of roads in town.  What’s the oldest? 

In 2010 the City undertook archaeological excavations along Aviles Street in 2010 prior to its rehabilitation. The earliest street deposits date from the late 1500s/early 1600s, with subsequent surfaces forming a continuous record that eventually became two feet thick. Whether Aviles Street is the oldest historic street in St. Augustine is still unknown; however, for now it stands as the oldest archaeologically documented street  in St. Augustine.  

Volunteer Nick McAuliffe pauses excavation of the Aviles roadbed (see stratigraphy to his left) to talk to a group of campers.

What was it made of? 

The composition of the road changed over time.  Initially it was a prepared, compacted earthen surface suggesting it was part of a formalized grid plan established in accordance with Spanish royal ordinances governing the establishment of colonies.  Through time soil accumulated over the street forming a series of earthen bands, whose definition was made easier to follow by very thin clay lens: a result of water accumulating on the surface.  It wasn’t until the mid-1700s (ca 1730 or so) that the street was intentionally paved with tabby, shell, or a combination of the two.  During the 19th century the street returned to an earthen state, which created a lot of discontent and complaining to the city commission.  In the early 20th century the street was paved with brick.  

What did excavating the road help you understand about the people of St. Augustine?  

Few people realize that archaeological investigation of colonial thorough fares provides a wealth of information.  Charlotte Street north of the plaza contains the oldest paved surface in the City, which probably is related to that corridor begin the principal commercial area during the 18th century.  Street deposits also provide a fantastic stratigraphic record enabling trends in artifact types and frequencies to be established over the course of hundreds of years.  This is in contrast to many residential lots, whose soil deposits have been churned over time resulting in the mixing of artifacts from different centuries.

Stratigraphy excavated in steps for clear documentation.  This roadbed, from Charlotte Street, reveals layers of road dating from  the late 1600s to roughly 1760.

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made excavating in St. Augustine? 

Every time one opens a pit the potential exists for discovering something unique about the city’s built environment and human behavior governing that development.  As such, everything is of interest.  One of the more intriguing discoveries made under the auspices of the City’s Archaeological Preservation Ordinance was the remains of a disarticulated equine (horse family), which was identified as a donkey based on bone characteristics.  This burial was radiocarbon dated to the late 17th century, which was the period when the Castillo de San Marcos was being constructed.  The animal's limbs had been “skillfully disarticulated” from the torso, after which the remains were placed into a pit that had been dug into an ancient sand dune.  The question here is: why didn’t the people who buried the animal simply dig a larger pit and bury the animal intact instead of taking the time to remove the legs, without damaging the bone?  This seems like a pretty labor intensive effort. 

Carl drew and color-coded this diagram of the donkey in an attempt to document and understand its mystery.  Image courtesy of the City of St. Augustine Archaeology Division.

Your ability to read soil stains and sites has led some to nickname you “The Feature Whisperer...” 

 I thought I was “the bone man"

Have you ever been stumped by a site? 

I don’t think I have ever been stumped or, if so, it was temporary; however, the continuous occupation that has occurred in St. Augustine for more than 400 years sometimes results in overlapping deposits that are confusing.  Eventually, everything gets sorted out.  

How did you come to better understand it?

Archaeology is all about understanding the soil and observing changes in soil color and composition.  If you take the time, respect the soil, and observe changes in artifact types and frequencies you can decipher the archaeological record. 

How many deposits can you see in this picture?  Carl "The Feature Whisperer Halbirt" has detected (and outlined for clear documentation) a trash pit intruding into an earlier trash pit, an 18th-century ditch (at the bottom), and four layers of midden deposit in between.  Photo courtesy of the City of St. Augustine's Archaeology Division.

In case you missed it, read the first installment of the interview here.
To get the rest of the story, check out the final piece here.

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