By Lura Readle Scarpitti
Photos by Kate Gardiner
The world of an archeological dig is a hard to describe if you haven’t experienced one: there’s the “swoosh, swoosh, swoosh” of the sifters which start and stop intermittently as buckets of soil are dumped into them; the organic smell of earth and other materials as they are overturned to uncover the hidden secrets underneath; the tools of all shapes and sizes and types (some rather unexpected – like a makeup brush? Apparently Clinique manufactures a nice excavation tool and they didn’t even know it) arranged around the room; the containers (film canisters, empty and cleaned Greek yogurt and large to-go Won Ton soup containers — really) holding little chunks of what would be debris to most people, but to those in the room, are akin to gold; the measuring tapes and pendulums and graph paper… and all of it covered in a thick layer of anticipation.
The activity is also something which you have to experience to understand. To the outsider, watching someone with a shovel or pick axe dig into dirt that’s supposed to possibly have a 400+ year-old body buried under is alarming. And then to see them suddenly put that aside, grab a trowel, get on their hands and knees and, more carefully than with the shovel, start scooping away mounds of dirt, until the trowel gets switched out for a delicate brush. When that happens, you know it’s getting good.
An archeological dig is the one place where a small quarter-sized bright green patch in the middle of layer of burnt umber soil is a thing of wonder and amazement, and where even the shades of the soil, sometimes indiscernable to the layman, can mean the difference between entire years, centuries and entire civilizations. Where a tiny piece of what looks like debris caught in the sifter’s wire mesh is cause for excitement (because it looks like it might be a tooth!). Where a seemingly small nothing…can turn out to be a big something.
In the past few decades, archeological digs have become a relatively routine thing here in the Oldest City; but City Archeologist Carl Halbirt will tell you that each dig is anything but routine — especially the one we’re about to let you in on.
It’s a saying that wherever you are in the historic area of St. Augustine, you never know who you may be standing on or over (and if it isn’t, it should be). Never in the history of the city has that been more true than it is today, especially with the incredible discovery unearthed just a few weeks ago under a building that has had tens of thousands (if not hundred of thousands) of people walk through its halls and across its floors.
It’s no secret that this town is steeped in history. Throw a rock and you’ll be hitting some this or that which has some significance to our city’s story. It’s a history which, although appreciated over time, hasn’t been preserved as some think it should; but that’s a discussion for another day and another time. It’s understandable that, as the boundaries of St. Augustine grew and more and more commercial and residential structures were needed to accommodate that growth, some pretty important sites were built upon. Some times those sites fell under the all too familiar bulldozer of progress, now lost forever to historians and archeologists.
Nobody is to blame for this. If you think about it, it wasn’t until relatively recently on our city’s 451 year timeline that there was a concerted effort to figure out just what St. Augustine truly meant on a historical scale. From here, there could be an account when excavations efforts began in earnest but considering what this story is really about — the discovery of what could be the very first colonists on of the Nation’s oldest continually occupied settlement — the space shouldn’t be spent on that. That’s for another issue.
Back to history — one of those historical sites, crucial to the understanding of the very beginnings of our city and the people who helped forge what we call “home,” went undiscovered for centuries — even though, as archeological and preservation efforts increased over the past 40 years, there was a growing suspicion that it was there. In the late 1960s, a group of archeologists under the direction of Hale Smith, Charles Fairbanks and Kathleen Deagan, all of the University of Florida, started to literally dig into our past, leading to some pretty remarkable discoveries of churches, cemeteries, dwellings and other historically significant areas.
Through ancient maps, Archeological Historian Elsbeth “Buff” Gordon knew that the Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, reportedly the very first church (Catholic, of course) in St. Augustine, in the area of King Street, Aviles Street and Marine Street. She could pretty much pinpoint it but, without finding anything concrete, they couldn’t be sure. In 2012, they found that proof when Halbirt, on a dig which had resulted from the refurbishing of Aviles Street, discovered post holes which coincided with where the map suggested the church’s west boundary would be. There are now brass markers on the northeastern sidewalk indicating where they were found. Now the question was, how far east did it the church go?
They suspected that it extended to just past where current day Charlotte Street is. Halbirt’s January 2016 discovery of human remains on the northern end of Charlotte (during another city improvement project) told them their suspicions were probably right. But still, he didn’t know for sure that those bodies were buried IN the old church. Still, he believed them to be some of our earliest residents.
“We thought that the bones we discovered were from early St. Augustine residents who were buried underneath the church floor but we couldn’t be certain because we didn’t have any other indications that there was a structure over them. Those days, people were often buried in the church floor because is was consecrated ground, with their heads to the east and feet to the west towards the altar. The bones we found lay just outside the west wall of what is called the Fiesta Mall,” which was once Potter’s Wax Museum and now a restaurant and retail space owned by longtime resident David White and his wife Cathy.
Fast forward a year later and an archeological miracle happened: Halbirt was offered the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see what, if anything, was on the other side of that wall. White called Halbirt and told him that damage from Hurricane Matthew had forced him to replace the floor of the retail space on the corner of King and Charlotte. As White said “I just asked if him if he wanted to come and dig around for a bit to see if there was something there. I didn’t really think he’d find anything but I knew there were some bones found on the other side of the wall. I figured what the heck!”
Of course, Halbirt jumped at the opportunity. They started with a small section in the middle of the room. White recalls with a laugh, “Carl hit the first bones within a couple of hours. I couldn’t believe it was that quick!”
Halbirt says of that moment “Call it luck but David didn’t have to call me up. He didn’t have to do that, but he did. So in a way, I think we were meant to find all of this. We were meant to document it because after (the new floor is installed) ends, we won’t have access to it anymore. And if we hadn’t found the remains outside a year ago that prompted him to offer, we wouldn’t be here now either.” Standing down in a 20 x 6 rectangular hole cut out of the floor of the room, Halbirt is saying this while just 4 feet away from a complete human skeleton almost completely uncovered at this point — that of a woman probably in her late 20s, and those first remains they found just two feet to his left. Speculations are that it is a male, probably of African descent, and much younger than the woman. He is also buried deeper, which suggests that he was buried earlier than her.
Within that area, Halbirt points out where they believe there are two, possible three more sets of remains lined up laying with the head in the east and feet to west, like the two now uncovered, and another off to the right of where the woman is. According to Halbirt “There are definitely a lot of of bodies in the area but we will only stick to this area,” as he gestures at the area of dirt below the now non-existent floor. “This pretty much confirms what we expected — that the church extends all the way to here at least.” Lending to that proof is a round area of dark dirt about 6 inches in circumference, indicating an interior post hole. They may never determine exactly where the eastern walls were. They could be under A1A Ale Works, for all we know.
While Halbirt talks, there are volunteers digging, sifting and brushing the soil, carefully working to find any evidence that will help back up the archeologist’s theories. One thing that is quite encouraging is that all the ceramic and pottery pieces found at the level of the remains are from the 16th century. Other factors seem indicate that the burials took place around 1570 or so.
Earlier, while Halbirt had stepped out of the site, Kathy Deagan, who is, as she says “just one of Carl’s volunteers,” was working on the remains of the woman and finds the bright green soil mentioned earlier in the story. That stopped everything for a bit. Excitedly she examines it, with others looking on, and decides that it must have been left behind from some copper…something… that was in the soil. But why was the copper there? “We just don’t know,” she says, a phrase that’s repeated by Halbirt later on when answering the question “What is this?’ when a mysterious round stone-like area is discovered. After some intense speculation, Halbirt says “The fun part is figuring it out.”
As for the green stain, Deagan decides to leave it undisturbed till they can figure out what that might be. Shortly after that, volunteer Jessica Clark of First Coast News excitedly says “I found another shroud pin!” Never a dull moment, it would seem.
It’s at this time that Deagan has to set down her brush and head to Gainesville for an obligation. When asked whether it’s tough to leave, she says emphatically “Yes! This is such a tremendous discovery and it’s hard to leave. I really just want to keep digging…I wouldn’t miss working on this for anything.”
Halbirt shares that excitement. “It’s really kind of indescribable. I mean, one part of you, the archeologist, is just thrilled because…what kind of opportunity do you have to find something like this? And another part of me is like…you’re really kind of almost in total awe because, think of what St. Augustine is. What do we sell? We sell history and the history is over 450 years old. What you’re looking at here is early history and these are the people, I think, that made us who we are today; that make the city what it is today. Without these people, you would have no St. Augustine. So, yes, I’m in awe.”Augustine. So, yes, I’m in awe.”
They will only be on the site for about two more weeks (although David laughs when he says that that time keeps getting extended by Halbirt as they keep finding more stuff) and they have only scratched the surface as to what all this really is. Like Carl says “At the moment, we just don’t know…not for sure.” Are these indeed the first colonists of St. Augustine? Did they come here on the San Paleo and were they a part of Menendez’s landing party? What were their lives like and how did they live? Halbirt explains that a great deal more information will come from bioarcheologist Dr. John Krigbaum who will be on site soon, and more digging and sifting and brushing will certainly reveal more clues. Until then…
…we just don’t know.
It is an honor and a privilege for Old City Life to be able to follow this story as it develops. There is obviously much more to be learned from and reported about this discovery and we will be here every step of the way. Look for follow up stories in future issues of OCL and follow us on our social media to keep up with the latest developments.