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Archaeological find may reveal new information about first city's earliest years

BonesMall1The oldest part of St. Augustine was established in 1572, just south of the Plaza de la Constitucion. When City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt began exploring that area just ahead of a major utility project along Charlotte Street, expectations were high. According the previous work in the area and to historical documents, there would be significant finds. Those expectations were realized in exciting ways.

An excavation along Charlotte Street in late January 2017 yielded many fragments of human remains, which were disturbed from centuries of road development, as well as multiple utility installations that had occurred in the late 19th century.  How the evolution of Charlotte Street near its intersection with King Street affected those archaeological deposits within its right-of-way, including the site of Nuestra Senora de los Remedios, was clearly represented in the sequential layering of streets that extend two feet below the existing brick surface.

Fiesta Mall PosterIn early February, while working near the well-traveled corner of Charlotte and King Streets, Halbirt and a crew of volunteers from the St. Augustine Archaeological Association were made an offer they could not refuse. David White, owner of the Fiesta Mall, the 1888 building adjacent to where Halbirt was working, invited the archaeologist to examine the area beneath the floor of one of the commercial enterprises inside the building.

The space was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Matthew, and White planned to replace the floor. This offer to come inside was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what was buried beneath the building. Halbirt also would test premises he had developed regarding the eastern boundary of the church/cemetery of Nuestra Señora de Los Remedios, which had been in use from about 1572 to 1702.  Halbirt speculated the eastern boundary of the church was somewhere near the middle Charlotte Street.

The wooden floor inside the building at 1 King Street was supported by a joist system that dated to 1888, or when the brick building that now houses the Fiesta Mall was constructed. Below this elevated platform was a loosely consolidated layer of soil deposits, which represent structural debris associated with a series of buildings on the property that began in the 1830s. 

Soil discolorations, or stains, and the presence of human bone fragments were observed below that layer of debris.  None of the material had seen the light of day for more than four hundred years. The graves had been covered by a thin layer of fine brown sand that included shell fragments, which is typically referred to as a midden deposit.

Ceramic artifacts from within the midden as well as the graves themselves indicate the two exposed burials date to the late 16th century, possibily during the period between 1572 when the church was built and 1586 when the church was destroyed by Francis Drake’s raid on St. Augustine.

The two exposed burials thus far, as well as possible other graves, indicate interment occurred under the church floor as represented by a distinct lens of gray clay. Burial practices followed traditional Spanish customs based on the Catholic faith.  Bodies were fully extended with heads to the east and feet to the west.  Arms were crossed over the mid-torso.

Similar to other colonial-era Spanish and mission churches, younger graves were dug into older graves, or intruded, which often creates a difficult puzzle for the archaeologist to solve. Given the burial space was limited in churches, it is easy to understand the reason for this practice of layering bodies over time.

The two bodies uncovered were stacked, with the lower body tentatively identified as a young male of African descent. The overlaying body was that of a young female of European descent.  It is possible that these two individuals were among the city’s first residents and some of the earliest colonists in North America.

According to strict protocols set forth in Florida statute, a committee was formed to determine a plan for the respectful disposition of human remains. The committee includes a bioarchaeologist from the University of Florida, historians, archeologists, and representatives of the Catholic Church; the group is headed by Daniel Seinfeld, Ph.D., Archaeology Collections and Conservation Supervisor, Bureau of Archaeological Research, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State.

The plan includes data collection by the bioarchaeologist, which will leave the remains in place if not threatened by further construction.  Reburial of any exhumed remains will be overseen by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine and placed in sanctified ground. Should any Native American remains be discovered, a different set of protocols will come into play.

Archeological work on Charlotte Street will continue in mid-March, once additional investigation inside 1 King Street is complete.

In The News

It’s no surprise that finding the remains of some of the earliest residents of the Nation’s Oldest City would attract attention including these examples:

St. Augustine Record - February 7
Skeletal remains may be that of first colonists in St. Augustine 

Action News Jax - February 7
Historic human remains discovered: Human remains that date back to the 1570s believed to have been found in St. Augustine

 

First Coast News - February 11
History unearthed: How newly discovered skeletons may be the first colonists of St. Augustine

 

To learn more about the work of the City of St. Augustine’s Archaeology Division, including the vital role the city’s related ordinances play in protecting these resources, visit www.CityStAug.com/Archaeology.