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Saint Augustine, Northeast Florida
Going public with archaeology for outreach, assistance to local governments, and service to the citizens and state of Florida. Visit our website at: http://flpublicarchaeology.org/nerc/
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Archive for December 2012

An Interview with Carl Halbirt, Part 2

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.

Holiday Surprise: An Interview with Carl Halbirt, Part 1

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

Monitoring Fun with Carl

Carl Halbirt on Oneida Street
The City of St. Augustine Public Works Department removes the soil of St. Augustine for many projects:  street repairs, waterline replacements, sea wall and sidewalk work.  When that happens in an archaeological zone, Carl Halbirt, the City Archaeologist, is there on the spot, monitoring what lies beneith the ground.  And it could be anything, a colonial fort, a mission church, an old city wall, a pig wallow, an indian bohio (house).  If it represents an archaeological feature, Carl and his volunteers record it. 

Machines Moving Dirt

City Water Pipe Trench
This Fall, the City has been replacing water lines in the Lincolnville neighborhood, along Oneida and Washington Streets to be exact.  The Public Works Department uses heavy equipment to remove the soil quickly.  It would take an archaeologist days to remove the same amount so this represents a wonderful opportunity to record a lot of features in a short amount of time.  But sometimes it's a race to see and record a feature before the workers cover it with backfill.

Onieda Street, west of Lake Maria Sanchez, was once the site of an 18th century Yamassee Indian village.  When the British attacked the Franciscan missions in north Florida and southeast Georgia, many of the Christian Indians fled to St. Augustine for protection.  The City allowed the refugees to establish villages outside the periphery of the city walls.  Two of these villages were located in Lincolnville. Pocotolaca, north of South Street and Paleca, south of Bridge Street.  Earlier archaeological work on South Street had established the location of the Pocotolaca Village.  Carl thought that the current water line work along Oneida might just uncover the location of the mission church in the Pocotolaca Native village. 

Recording a Feature

SAAA Members Screening for Artifacts

Smudge Pot Feature

 Last week Carl and about 6 volunteers from the St. Augustine Archaeological Association (SAAA) followed the earth moving equipment as it opened a narrow trench along the curb of the street to drop in new plastic water pipes.  Every change in the color of the soil on the sides of the trench was noted and recorded.  Soil from interesting features was screened for artifacts.  The driver of the earth mover conveniently dropped the soil from the features in piles for screening.  Everyone was interested in what we would find in the screens.

But alas, last week, the site of the Yamassee mission church was not located.  But the work continues next week on Washington Street.  Stay tuned for another possible interesting discovery as Carl and his SAAA volunteers move just ahead of the earth moving equipment.

Photos by Mischa Johns

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