John W. Cowart
Mastodon hunters, mound builders, French Huguenots, Spanish conquistadors, pirates, minutemen, slave traders, civil war soldiers, gandy dancers, gun runners.
You and I have one thing in common with them all: we too chose to live on Florida's First Coast.
Artifacts left by our predecessors on the First Coast fill the ground we walk over every day.
There are the remains of an Indian village beneath Jacksonville’s Federal Building on Bay Street; another rests beneath the old jail at 711 Liberty St.
Dogs race around the site of an Indian mound at The Orange Park Kennel Club.
The ruins of a Spanish military outpost may be in the ground under Bishop Kenny High School.
Thousands of broken pieces from thick, green glass beer bottles testify to the popularity of a turn-of-the century tavern where the City Parking Garage now stands on Water Street.
The Independent Life building stands atop an ancient steam locomotive.
Workers digging a hole at the Daniels State Office building uncovered an huge rusty safe -- probably a relic of the days when sailing ships tied up to a wharf there.
"This area has enough historical scope for a Mitchner novel!" said Buzz Thunen who teaches anthropology at the University of North Florida.
"Northeast Florida is literally one of the richest archaeological areas in Florida. Prehistoric people lived along the river as long as eight thousand years ago. We have prehistory and history with French, Spanish, English occupations. It's all here," he said.
There are three types of archaeology in the United States: research, salvage, and contract, he said.
"Research archaeology is a type done by museums or universities as long-term research projects.
"Salvage archaeology involves something discovered that needs to be dealt with right away.
"Contract archaeology is done to meet state and federal guidelines about the managing of cultural resources on properties -- like in impact studies where the state is concerned about what sort of archaeological site might be affected by development," he said.
Most of the work now being done in Duval County is contract archaeology done by firms and subsidiaries of environmental groups which discover evidence of past people who lived here.
"As Duval County and the metropolitan area develops more, more of this is uncovered, usually by accident, and needs to be preserved," Thunen said.
Thunen and some of his students have been working two sites recently. They are helping University of Florida personnel on a Spanish mission site on Amelia Island, and they are uncovering an Indian/Spanish site in St. Johns County.
"Our Students touch history and fill in the puzzle of the past," Thunen said.
The St Johns County site presents a microcosm of how Indian lifestyle changed through contact with Europeans.
Thunen identifies the site as a small mission or visiting station where Spanish priests ministered to a Timucua Indian village.
Apparently these Indians had been pagan mound builders who converted to Catholicism and were then caught in one of the many wars between Spanish and British forces.
"Mound building extends back to at least 400 B.C. and occurred throughout prehistory," Thunen said.
"The French actually witnessed a mound being built by Indians. One of Le Moyne's pictures shows a group of Indians around a hump of earth with a conch shell on top. That's the beginning of a mound," he said.
Jacques le Moyne was a French artist who came to Northeast Florida in the 1560s.
"But as the Indians were exposed to Spanish culture and missions," Thunen said, "Their burial customs changed. When the Spanish came in, they were buried as Christians."
Thunen emphasized that Florida has strict laws about people digging burial mounds. If you know the location of one, leave it alone and report it to professionals.
At the St. Johns County site, which is right beside a modern day home, Thunen has uncovered Indian ceramics adjacent to European clay tobacco pipes.
"For me, it is not the artifacts that are so important but the stories they tell," he said.
Want to hear stories of local archaeological discoveries?
Talk with Jerry Hyde.
Hyde, who works as a field representative for the Florida Department of Insurance, is a past president of both the Florida Anthropological Society and the Northeast Florida Anthropology Society.
Hyde has worked on a number of sites in the metropolitan area and a collection of the artifacts he and his friends have found is on display now in a newly opened exhibit at the Jacksonville Museum of Science and History.
Hyde's experience gives him an insight to the pre-history and history of Jacksonville.
"The most ancient people, the Paleo-Indians hunted big game, following herds of mastodon and huge extinct bison. I've seen evidence of this around Baker County," Hyde said.
"In the Archaic Period, the people had a food gathering culture and moved to the rivers to gather from oyster beds because they were so darned easy to get," he said.
The Indians usually threw the empty oyster shells -- as well as bones, broken pottery, flint and other rubbish -- out the door of their houses and now great shell mounds, kitchen middens, mark the location of archaic Indian villages.
We drive over such Indian remains every day; many Duval County roads, including Heckscher Drive and Mayport Road, were originally paved with material mined from area kitchen middens, Hyde said.
"In the Mississippian Period, people settled down and raised corn, squash and beans," he said.
The major tribe living around Jacksonville were the Timucua.
"Before the coming of the white man, the dominant tribe in the Southeast was the Creeks... When the British came in the South, they thought the Creeks were the most civilized of Indians.
"Creeks dominated the Timucua and others. They established tremendous trade routes criss-crossing the Southeast going from place to place all the way from Ohio to Mississippi. The Maya had pyramid temples in the Yucatan, and the idea crept around the Gulf and up the Ohio valley in the form of burial and temple mounds.
"And the Creeks established athletic games, a sort of Indian Olympics. They made huge fields, bigger than two or three football fields where two or three hundred Indians on a side played field hockey -- it broke a lot of heads but reduced wars.
"The Timucua tribe at the time of Columbus stretched from the mouth of the St. Johns to Tampa with a population of over 50 thousand people. They had their own language, religion and culture.
"It appears that they had once been an even bigger tribe with their center of culture near Mayport. This was not a simple culture; they were very complex. They were not isolated. They knew what was going on. But it appears that by the time white men came, they were on the skids compared to what they had been," Hyde said.
Hyde gleaned much of his information from seven years of field work on the Dent Mount, a huge village and burial complex on Pelotes Island near Clapboard Creek on Jacksonville's northside. It was named after the property owner when the mound was discovered; JEA now owns the site.
Like a King Tut's Tomb in Jacksonville, the Dent Mound had lain undisturbed for centuries until archaeologists uncovered its treasures.
Hyde ticked off an impressive list of finds:
* -- "We found a fine vase, or pot, over a foot tall composed of two globes one atop the other. Then the mouth of the top bulb flared out -- a double-bubble, it's called. It's a trade thing from the Gulf Coast.
* -- "We found a lot of trade items, like big pieces of mica used as a mirror and a pair of little fishes made of conch shell. They are a gorgeous work of art.
* -- "We found copper from the Great Lakes, mica from North Carolina, pottery from the Gulf Coast, flint from Ohio -- these were sophisticated people with a vast system of trade and commerce.
* -- "We found quite a few projectile points -- even a cluster of them put in as a bundle of arrows. But the wood shafts had rotted away.
* -- "A paint pot shaped like a canoe with compartments for different colored paints separated inside.
*-- "A kit used to make dugout canoes. They'd cut down a tree, burn out the center of the wood and scrape it smooth with shell tools. This was apparently the grave of a boatmaker.
The Timucua believed in another world where they needed food, weapons, tools and the things they valued, Hyde said.
The Dent Mound contained many bodies which taught the archaeologists tremendous amounts about the people who lived and died there.
"The teeth in the skulls of the women contained no cavities --little or no sugar in those days -- but they are worn flat from the gritty diet and from chewing rawhide to make pliable leather for use as cloth," Hyde said.
The men's skeletons also taught lessons.
"In places we found jumbled bodies, as well as the extended burial of the a chief. And other body parts -- apparently what were enemies.
"A couple of burials had extra skulls with them -- on the chest for instance, or cradled in his arms. We think these are warriors who died of his wounds and had the head of an enemy he'd killed buried with him as a trophy," Hyde said.
Hyde emphasizes obedience to state laws concerning burial mounds.
"Things have pretty much come to a halt as of October 1, 1986, because of a new state law about Indian burials. Now we have to contact the county medical examiner, and he takes a look, and then he contacts the state Archives in Tallahassee and so forth..," he said
How old is the Dent Mound?
"When we got to the bottom of the mound, we found a fire site built to purify site. We sent some charcoal for a carbon-14 test and it dated at 600 B.C. plus or minus 90 years," Hyde said.
Of course not all local sites are that old. Indian mounds and village sites line the river banks for miles but more recent artifacts also lie right underfoot, Hyde said.
"For instance there's a donkey engine under Independent Life. Sailing ships used to tie up at docks on Bay Street and around the Civil War, I guess, an engine jumped the tracks and got stuck in the mud.
"With the technology of the day they couldn't get it out.
"Of course with the technology of our day, when they built Independent Life, the cost was prohibitive, so they said the heck with it and put the building right on top of it. We couldn't get it out either," Hyde said.
From his office window in the Daniels State Office Building, Hyde once saw construction workers uncover an old safe.
"Here were the Clyde Steamship Line Docks that burned years ago and when they were digging for a JEA repeater station, the workers found a huge safe from a dock warehouse. They loaded it in back of pickup and took off about 90 miles an hour going north on Ocean Street and haven't ever been seen again. I'll bet there was nothing in it but shipping records," he said with a laugh.
Hyde recounts story after story of the people who lived here before us and the things they left behind them.
"In archaeology, you never finish learning. It's like detective work, half guessing, because their culture is gone forever," he said.
Jan Flager, public relations director for the Museum of Science and History in Jacksonville, advises anyone interested in seeing first-hand the dynamics of an Indian mound to visit the museum's "Peoples of the Mound" exhibit.
This display includes many artifacts recovered from the Dent Mound.
"It displays a cut-away cross section of a typical mound with artifacts exposed," Flager said. "It includes a projectile point chart and a potsherd chart showing types and chronology."
Flager classifies archaeological studies as either historic or prehistoric.
Historic archaeology involves sites the dates of which can be related through written history; prehistoric archaeology involves sites which pre-date the Europeans coming to Florida, he said.
The Dent Mound represents a major prehistoric site on Florida's First Coast.
"The mound complex was both habitation and ceremonial and they recovered whole pots, effigy pots and tons of potsherds," Flager said.
That is, unbroken ceramic pottery, pottery shaped like animal or human figures and broken fragments of pottery. In the days before plastic and paper bags, people stored and carried virtually everything in baskets or ceramic vessels.
Therefore potsherds and pottery, made in distinctive styles, help archaeologists to identify the people who left them and to date the sites where they are found, he said.
"There is a whole series of pot types in this area ranging from the plain to check stamped, cord-marked and paddle stamped, to very complex," Flager said.
The pottery of prehistoric people is often just about all that's left of them, he said. "Organic materials like wood or bone don't survive well here because of soil conditions," he said.
"As pre-Columbian material they do occur but it's rare. When you do find them, they're always deteriorated. They're like marshmallow and have to be exposed, dried and sealed with plastic fixative. You can't just pick these things up," he said.
The "Peoples of the Mound" exhibit includes the remains of a dug-out canoe recovered from a mud bank in the St. Johns and preserved.
Deon Jaccard, director of the Amelia Island Museum of History in Fernandina Beach, feels delighted with a new exhibit of historical archaeology soon to open there.
"Since 1985, we've had a dig here going on under the auspices of the Florida State Museum -- It's a 17th century mission, Santa Catalina de Gauale, on the property of George and Dottie Dorion -- and we have just received a $50,000 special category grant from the State through the Bureau of Historic Preservation," she said.
"We're overjoyed. The grant enables us to double our facilities," she said. "We're in the old Nassau County Jail building and our new floor will include a Dorion Dig room telling the story of the site and of the plantation there. That was in the Harrison family for 150 years."
Ms. Jaccard describes the Amelia Island Museum of History as an oral history museum.
"We are unusual because we're not simply a collection but every visitor is met by a person who takes them through the museum and tells them a 400 year history which is wonderful," she said.
That presentation begins with the Indians and goes through 1900. Another museum presentation features a history of northeast Florida architecture styles illustrated by models constructed with pains-taking detailed for the museum by Ms. Jaccard's husband.
Amelia Island used to be a no-man's land, a sort of buffer zone between the Spanish fort in St. Augustine and the English fort on St. Simon's Island, Ga.
Mrs. Jaccard does not know of any authentic pirate remains but she does not doubt that pirates worked out of Fernandina.
"Pirates? Well historically it is unquestionably a fact that they were here because Presidents Jefferson and Madison set about clearing pirates out of the area," Ms. Jaccard said.
"This was Spanish land and it was a magnet for Banditos of all descriptions. Fernandina grew so wild that the American Navy closed the port between 1807 and 1811."
"Most of this island will yield something if you dig long enough because of our long and colorful history," she said.
When Joe Sasser was a boy at Jacksonville Beach, he found a some Indian relics in a pit where construction workers were digging fill dirt.
That find influenced the course of his life.
Now he is an anthropology professor at Florida Community at Jacksonville's Kent Campus.
His most satisfying archaeological find -- and his most disappointing -- is the site of St. John's Town, an Eighteenth Century village on St John's Bluff where loyalists escaped from the American Revolution to live here under British rule.
"The town had two taverns, a physician, about 300 houses, and plantations back in the woods from it," Sasser said.
"This site could have been reconstructed like Williamsburg; but with property values and housing construction in the area being what it is... Well, it could have been."
Sasser has surveyed the site twice and found broken pipe stems, parts of a flint lock musket, metal hoes and rakes made by the British East India Co., coins, part of a surveyors transit, and the tabby floors and foundations of some colonial houses.
"It's a potentially fascinating historical site, a major center for refugees from the American Revolution" he said.
"Jacksonville has always been a good place to live. When they first got here from Europe, they must have thought they'd gone to Heaven," Sasser said.
Well, Florida's First Coast must not have been too heavenly because bloody battles were fought constantly in the area for its control.
Numerous forts comprise significant historical archaeological sites throughout the area, Sasser said.
"There's the site of a fort on Greenfield Island near the Intercoastal Waterway; that was a Spanish fort and mission complex guarding the entrance to the St. Johns.
"There are two forts to the south of us, Picolata and San Francisco de Pupo, near Green Cove Springs; they guarded the back door to St. Augustine.
"Fort Heilman near Middleburg protected settlers during the Seminole wars of the 1840's.
"Fort San Mateo, near Assumption School, covered the King's Road. And there were Civil War fortifications all along the river.
"This has always been a strategic area," Sasser said.
One of Sasser's favorite projects last summer was leading a team of 20 area high school students in surveying archaeological sites from Arlington to Mayport along the south bank of the river.
"I try to channel the students, interest, enthusiasm and energy, and to do creative salvage work without damaging a site, " Sasser said.
Some of the land included in this survey is owned by the Nature Conservancy.
"They are a conservation organization, nation wide, that buys pristine properties and takes them off the development rolls," Sasser said.
"Near St. John's Town they have about 700 acres left wild, but they allow scientific studies done in a professional manner on their properties. I can't thank them enough for what they are doing."
Carol Norton, a junior at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, took part in this year's survey and hopes to work in the one next year.
She is enthusiastic about the things she did and the things she learned.
"We had one week instruction, then a week in the lab, and two in the field," she said.
"Our lab work consisted of sorting though material from the field, artifacts (material worked by people such as carved bone or pottery) and ecofacts (natural substances such as unworked shell or bone). That was very tedious.
"But out in the field we'd go to specially marked places in the Nature Conservatory and dig test pits 50 centimeters square and about 50 centimeters deep for samples," she said.
Most people look at archaeology and think of Indiana Jones, but it's not as glamorous as all that, she said.
"The woods were so thick that we would have to hack our way though was a machete.
"If we found bone or artifacts in a test pit, we'd record what we found there. That would be a fertile hole and we'd do seven to ten a day. We'd sketch a profile of the hole and label and describe each level.
"We ran the dirt through a sifter to screen out small items. I like finding bone a lot because I learned to tell bone from shell; shell is flater and breaks to show really white inside. It's chalky while bone is more porous. I found deer teeth, vertebra and fish bones," Ms Norton said.
What could she learn from such scanty evidence?
"The Indians were hard workers and they had a hard life. Their teeth were worn flat because they ate an lot of sandy, gritty stuff like oysters and shellfish," she said.
"Archaeology is important to help you know about the culture and how people used to live. And you find out by looking at their stuff what they did in daily life and how they lived their lives. Maybe we can avoid their mistakes," Ms Norton said.
When Europeans initially came to Northeast Florida, they were not too far removed from knighthood and the invention of gunpowder; many soldiers still wore suits of metal body armor.
Near St. Johns Bluff, one group of students on the survey dug up part of the curved breast plate from a Spanish soldier's armor.
Ron Gilmour, a senior at Stanton College Preparatory School and a reporter for the Devil's Advocate student newspaper, told about that find.
"Well, it wasn't my group that found it but we all saw it; it's a good sized piece of metal and has the curvature of a breastplate. Nothing else that size could be buried that deep.
"I don't think they wore armor all the time -- too hot here for that -- but maybe only when they were on guard duty or expecting a fight," he said.
At one time, a group of Spanish soldiers in the area deserted the army and went to live with Indians. "At least they left their fort very quickly, and that may account for this piece of armor being found with Indian things; or maybe it was a guy the Indians killed in battle and took his armor home as kind of like a trophy," Gilmour said.
Gilmour credits a teacher at Stanton, Joel Williams, with interesting him in archaeology.
"He knew I was interested in forestry or wild life management as a career and put me onto this; it's opened a new world for me," Gilmour said.
"For instance, I never knew that Jacksonville was a major Indian site. I thought that you would have to dig very deep to find anything. But there are places you can just walk over the ground and pick up pieces of pottery right off the surface. You rarely have to dig over 60 centimeters to find things and you can just keep digging til you quit finding stuff."
Gilmour's team worked briefly excavating a possible mission site which has been continuously inhabited for centuries.
"Here we were excavating for artifacts hundreds of years old and there they were right across the street constructing new houses," he said.
"Most of the pottery my group found -- well, the most common was St. Johns Period Plain; that's in the neighborhood of 2,000 years old. Then we found patterned pottery -- where they carved a design on a wooden paddle and pressed it into the wet clay when they were making the pot. It leaves a waffle design. And we found some Complicated Stamped -- that's from a later period...
"And at the foot of the Dames Point Bridge, we found some Early American things, broken bits of dinner plates, things like that.
"I'll tell you, it's kind of eerie to pick up a piece of pottery and realize it was made before you were born.
"It makes you think," Gilmour said.
This article appeared in the Fall, 1988, issue of Jacksonville Magazine.
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