Uncovering HISTORY

Published: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, July 1, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
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Dr. Gifford Waters of the Florida Museum of Natural History poses at the excavation site of the 400-year-old Spanish Mission of San Francisco de Potano, which was discovered decades ago in northwest Gainesville. The mission was founded among the Potano-Timucua Indians by Franciscan priests in 1606.

DOUG FINGER/ The Gainesville Sun


Around Gainesville

The San Francisco de Potano mission is just one of many important archeological and historical sites in and around Gainesville. Though the exact locations of many sites are kept confidential to prevent vandalism or destruction, a few examples of what's been found in this area include:

  • Richardson Site - another Spanish mission near Orange Lake
  • Newnan's Lake - dugout canoes were discovered several years ago when water levels dropped
  • Burial mounds - late-prehistoric mounds (from 1,000 to 2,000 years old) have been found in the county
  • Second Seminole War sites - locations of Seminole villages and sites of battles between the Seminoles and the U.S. Government have been discovered in the area

  • The patch of woods looks like any other in this part of Florida, a tall canopy filtering the sunshine, providing shady sanctuary for thirsty mosquitoes.
    But beneath this particular plot in Northwest Gainesville, 10 to 40 centimeters under the leaf-covered surface, lie the remains of a 400-year-old Spanish mission, the first and longest lasting mission in interior Florida.
    The general area of the San Francisco de Potano mission, which was founded in 1606, was first discovered by University of Florida researchers in the 1950s, though structural remains of the mission were never located.
    In January, a research team from the Florida Museum of Natural History embarked on a project to locate the Spanish ruins. After six months of plotting and excavating, the project is drawing to a close, and Project Director Dr. Gifford Waters and his team can officially say mission accomplished.
    "We finally have found evidence of the Spanish structures," says Waters, an historical archeologist at the Florida Museum.
    The New World The dirt walls of the excavation sites, one-by-two meter rectangles cut 85 to 90 centimeters into the ground, don't look like much to the novice eye. But under Waters' trained gaze, the tapestry of different-colored dirt opens a window to history. Vertical deposits of darker gray soil indicate where a post either rotted in place or was removed from the ground; whitish material surrounding what would have been the bottom of a post reveals that clay was used to fortify the post; a bowl-shaped scoop of darker dirt, littered with bone and shards of pottery, betrays a trash pit.
    Here, all of human existence resides in less than a meter of stratified dirt, much shallower than other sites Waters has excavated. This is partly due to the unchanged nature of the place - aerial photography dating to the early 20th century confirms that not much has happened here for some time, Waters says.
    "It's one of the very few sites that I've ever worked on that there aren't any modern disturbances," says Waters, who has conducted excavations throughout Florida and in Georgia and the Dominican Republic. "Out here, as far as we can tell, there's been nothing."
    Though it hasn't seen much action in recent history, when the mission was founded, the area was a village of about 400 Native Americans called Potano, a subgroup of the Timucua Indians of North Florida and southern Georgia. The recent excavation uncovered what was probably either the friar's residence or kitchen area, Waters says. The mission likely included a chapel and a school as well.
    Life at this mission and others included daily mass and instruction in both religion and skills such as European farming, weaving and music, says Dr. Michael Gannon, the team's historian. He describes the "sacrificial" life the friars led, battling disease and often treacherous living conditions.
    "It was a very difficult life," Gannon says." Their only interest was to serve these native people religiously and culturally."
    One hundred years after its founding, the San Francisco de Potano mission was destroyed by English raiders, Gannon says, its palm-thatch roofed buildings burned to the ground and its residents driven off.

    An intricate process

    Fast forward 300 years. Waters began the process of excavating the site with 160 to 180 methodical shovel test surveys, sampling soil every 25 meters in a grid across the mission area.
    Using these tests, which yielded various artifacts, and data from the 1950s excavation, the team decided where to dig. At each of 10 excavation sites, Waters and his team used flat-point shovels and hand trowels to reveal centimeters of Earth at a time. As they encountered artifacts, they routinely stopped to map by hand and photograph the locations of larger features.
    "The artifacts are important," Waters says, "but what's most important is the contextual data."
    Distinct dirt deposits, like the trash pit or the post sites, were excavated separately. The dirt was then sifted to reveal pieces of Native American and Spanish pottery, bones, nails, beads and arrowheads. Among all the shovel tests and excavation sites, "thousands and thousands" of artifacts were retrieved, Waters says. The artifacts are now being analyzed and will hopefully be on display at the Florida Museum in the future, he says.
    Though the artifacts offer a colorful glimpse into the past, Waters says he is most excited that the team achieved its goal of locating the mission structures, and he hopes to return in a year or two to locate the remains of the chapel.
    "To me that's more exciting than any of the artifacts themselves."

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