Friday, December 21, 2012

After last month's trio of blogs, I wanted to keep my holiday theme rolling.  So before we all scurry off to family, rest, and way too much food, it's time for me to deliver my gift to you for this holiday season: an interview with the City of St. Augustine's legendary archaeologist, Carl Halbirt.  He had such great insight to share that I’ve broken the interview into three parts.  The first entry shines a light on the City’s archaeology ordinance.

St. Augustine City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt has conducted hundreds of excavations throughout the oldest city.

 The City just celebrated the 25th anniversary of putting its archaeology ordinance in place.  What do you think it has meant to St. Augustine to have the ordinance in place?  

The benefits that have resulted from the City of St. Augustine’s (CoSA) Archaeological Preservation Ordinance having been in place these past 25 years are numerous.  Foremost, the ordinance has preserved through documentation St. Augustine’s archaeological heritage prior to development. Without the foresight, as well as continuing support, of community activists and city government it is unfathomable to think of what would have gone unrecorded and lost. This brings up another aspect of the ordinance, which involves community awareness and appreciation that St. Augustine’s history is not limited to what is visible both above ground and in print, but what is buried.  As the city has been continuously occupied for more than 400 years, the earlier record has been erased by later occupations.  Through archaeological investigations conducted under the auspices of the City’s ordinance, various research issues have been addressed, such as developing a model illustrating how St. Augustine evolved and how space was being utilized over time.  The ordinance is not just about excavating sites and recovering artifacts, it also is about public outreach. 

Carl engages the public by using an all-volunteer excavation crew, offering presentations, and answering questions as people encounter him on site.

 Are you familiar with any other archaeology ordinances or programs throughout the country?  If so, how do they compare to ours? 

There are about a dozen or so local governments within the United States that have some sort of mechanism that that responds to new construction.   Some regulations are limited to just public property.  Others are more comprehensive.  The one thing that separates St. Augustine from other communities is that archaeology here has been incorporated into the city’s comprehensive plan.  As such, it is part of the planning process.   

St. Augustine’s ordinance is one of the few in the country that applies to private and public property.  How is that piece significant to understanding our past? 

Our ability to understand  St. Augustine’s archaeological heritage is made possible by the ordinance being applicable to both public and private property.   A large percentage of archaeological work conducted in the United States is on public property, which has been the case for decades.  The City’s ordinance is progressive in that its framers realized that to limit its application to just public property would overlook large portions of the city that contained significant archaeological deposits, such as much of the colonial downtown district and areas containing both prehistoric and historic 18th-century Native American communities. 

You’ve excavated hundreds of sites all over the city.  What is left to learn?  What are you still most curious about?

Every time an archaeological project occurs within the city limits something new is learned: no matter what size the development or how many times the city has investigated the property.  Although more than 650 archaeological projects have been undertaken within the city limits, these projects are limited to just the area of development.  Thus, if a property owner builds a house one year and installs a swimming pool the next, each construction involves an archaeological investigation.  For that reason, discovery is a constant in St. Augustine.  Although I am partial to the colonial period (i.e., 1565 to 1821), my interests span the entire saga of human history within the St. Augustine area, which encompasses roughly 10,000 years.  Some fascinating information has been uncovered relevant to the later prehistoric occupations, which date from 4,000 to 500 years ago, especially the layout of villages and material culture (i.e., artifacts) attributes.  

How do you see the ordinance functioning in the future?       

Except for one revision three years after the ordinance was passed on December 10, 1986, and a few additions that have occurred over the past 20 years, the ordinance is a viable document that ensures that St. Augustine’s archaeological heritage is preserved through documentation prior to new ground-penetrating construction.  As such, the criteria the ordinance established for determining when an archaeological response is necessary will likely remain the same.  The only modifications may involve refining archaeological zone boundaries, which reflect the accumulation of information collected over the past 25 years and was not available when the ordinance was initially drafted.   

A map of St. Augustine's archaeological zones.

Will there still be sites to explore?
Of course!  Although 650 projects have been implemented, only a fraction of the total number of lots within the defined archaeological zones have been tested.  Moreover, only portions of most of the lots have been examined.  There is a lot more that can be learned about St. Augustine from the archaeological data.  

Carl and his crew have excavated at Cathedral Parish School on seven separate occasions over the years, yet so much of the site's resources remain unexplored.

How long do you think St. Augustine will benefit from having a City Archaeologist in many years to come?

From now until Florida is reclaimed by the sea! There is no place else in the country that has the depth or breadth of archaeological resources like St. Augustine.  Its archaeological heritage is a microcosm of American history reflecting the cultural “melting pot” that is the United States.  This process has been continuous for more than 400 years.  Having the position of City Archaeologist helps to insure that those buried resources have a “voice” in city government decision making and action.  

*Note: a little research reveals a handful of programs as formal as St. Augustine's around the country.  They include Boston, Massachusetts; New York City, New York; Alexandria, Virginia; and Phoenix, Arizona

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