UF leads excavation of 'Most Sacred Acre'
Published: Saturday, June 7, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 6, 2014 at 4:58 p.m.
ST AUGUSTINE — "America's Most Sacred Acre" — the name given to the tranquil, shaded waterfront cemetery and grounds of the Nombre De Dios Mission and Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche — has been the center of activity and attention for six weeks.
A lot of digging and scraping with shovels and pickaxes. A lot of chopping through sidewalk pavement and tree roots.
All to uncover the foundation and inner walls of what experts say is the first shrine ever built in the New World to the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ.
"It's exhausting work, physically and mentally sometimes," said Alysia Leon, a recent graduate of Flagler College, whose name bears the faint echo of long-ago explorer Ponce De Leon, who in his search for the Fountain of Youth supposedly made landfall while searching just a short distance to the north of the mission dig site.
There is a Fountain of Youth to the north of here, but it's a tourist attraction with its own archaeological artifacts once hidden 20 inches beneath the surface.
The shrine at Nombre De Dios is one of the most significant archaeological finds in years, said Gifford Waters, the lead archaeologist here, and collections manager for historical archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
"I'm ecstatic," said Eric Johnson, who's been manager of the mission for the past 20 years. He's seen other digs, but nothing like this. "I always felt this place held a major secret to history. To see that borne out is very satisfying. I had no idea it would be anything that huge."
It's a huge, relatively intact architectural structure generating lots of excitement from historians, archaeologists and other scholars from all over.
They've all stared into the open trenches and collectively oohed and ahhed at the coquina and tabby foundation outlining what was once a shrine, a church, a friar's living quarters, a classroom where priests indoctrinated the natives in the catechism of the Catholic faith, rooms for pilgrims to rest after doing their obeisance.
Modern-day pilgrims — tourists in bright sherbet-colored shirts and baggy khaki shorts wearing fanny packs and floppy hats — walk along the paths, peer into the trenches dug by Leon and her colleagues, and pepper them with questions. They are careful not to step into the taped-off area that takes up most of the southern end of the park before it hits Hospital Creek.
The church's remains — less than two feet beneath the lush sod that covers the mission grounds — weren't buried under more modern graves and headstones. The only human structure on the site is a weathered pump house for the irrigation system.
The excavated foundation is criss-crossed with the PVC pipes for that irrigation system, laid down in the 1960s by workers unaware they were walking over the remains of a church more than three centuries old that was just a shovel's depth beneath the surface.
The foundation is shallow enough that the ditch-witch or whatever mechanized man-made demon that cut the trenches for the irrigation system carved into the coquina and tabby.
Uncovering the foundation wasn't easy. They had to chop through thick tree branches and cut through a sidewalk paved over the north wall. A pickax was broken in the process.
"It's amazing how good a shape the remaining foundations are considering how shallow the site is," Waters said. "It's amazing there wasn't more damage, or we wouldn't be here."
Along the grassy shoreline of Hospital Creek are piles of muck and shell — the slurry that had been dug out of the trenches. The crew laid screens over the mounds and washed away the dirt to reveal Spanish and native American pottery fragments, Spanish plates, nails and spikes, British gun flints and musket balls, even animal bones.
The mix of artifacts reveals the crazy, quilted history of this spit of land.
And for "America's Most Sacred Acre," a lot of blood has been shed on this location.
First settled by the Spanish, it was captured during a British invasion in 1702. The British burned the building, which historians believe had a thatched roof.
The Spanish recaptured it, only to have the British regain it in 1728. When the Spanish retook it for a second time, the governor decided the building was indefensible and ordered it blown up. The building material was salvaged to build a new church on the opposite shore of Hospital Creek. Nobody has done test digs to try to locate that second church — which was eventually cannibalized for materials to build the church that currently stands in the plaza of downtown St. Augustine.
Greg Smith, who received his Ph.D. from UF in 1991 and lives in St. Augustine, is excited to be a part of this dig. "It's monumental architecture," he said, comparing it to finds in Peru, where Leon has done her research.
"It's rare to find monuments like this," Smith said. "People that come by are as amazed as we are. You don't see this every day."
Living in St. Augustine offers all kinds of discoveries, he said. You can have a disturbed land on one side of you, and an undisturbed site next door containing all sorts of mysteries.
For Sarah Bennett, a University of West Florida graduate student who did her undergrad work at Flagler College, being on the dig is a chance take a break from writing her master's thesis, but also an opportunity to reconnect with St. Augustine.
"This is an area of personal interest for me," Bennett said. "It's my passion."
The era they are studying was an interesting time period, she said, "a complex cultural experience."
Leon, who specializes in pre-Columbian human remains in Peru, said this site offers a contrast to what she normally studies. The Spanish in Peru just reused existing building materials for their own architecture, she said.
But St. Augustine's big coquina depositories offered raw material for the Western European settlers.
"To have an experience like this in St Augustine is great," she said. "This is where I fell in love with archaeology."
This site, for all its significance, was an unexpected discovery, Waters said.
Father Charles Spellman, an amateur archaeologist, made some excavations in 1951, dug up some artifacts and that was that. But there were no field records to show where he dug up those artifacts or what he found.
Fast forward several decades. When the Catholic church moved archives from Mandarin to St. Augustine, a nun, Catherine Bitzer, found documents that appeared to be related to archaeology, and she gave them to Kathleen Deegan, distinguished research curator of archaeology and adjunct professor of anthropology and history at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History.
"So we were able to determine where he found the artifacts," Waters said. Spellman didn't record exactly where he found the artifacts but said it was about 100-150 feet south of the mission chapel in the center of the cemetery, Waters said.
Waters led UF's first excavation or "field season" in spring 2011 and dug a series of small, shovel-width trenches to try to get an estimate of the size and shape of the building. In fall 2011, they returned to dig a square unit 3 meters by 3 meters, exposing the intersection of two walls that turned out to be the south and west walls of a structure made of coquina rock.
But the exterior of the west wall also had a material called tabby, an early type of concrete made of shells and dirt, which led them to believe there was another structure or extension of the original coquina building that might have been built years later.
Three years passed before they could come out again, on April 29, with the support of an endowment from the Museum of Natural History at UF and a grant from the Historic St. Augustine Research Institute at Flagler College.
In five weeks' time, they excavated the 36-foot by 23-foot coquina structure believed to be a shrine or chapel, and another 35- by 55-foot building extending off the smaller one.
By Friday, they planned to have collected, bagged and catalogued all the artifacts they found, and mapped the structure's elevations and coordinates. Those data will go into a Geographic Information System program, Gifford said, "so when we come next field season, we'll know exactly where we've excavated before and where all the foundations are."
As with all archaeological projects, they learn something new and answer some questions, while leaving more questions behind for the next field season. While they were able to expose enough of the foundation to outline the two buildings and find several interior walls that outline rooms, they didn't have time to uncover those rooms.
Next time, hopefully in a year or so depending on when they can secure the next round of funding, Waters hopes to figure out what went on in the one room with a finished, concrete-like floor.
Waters hopes to uncover the other rooms in the building's extension where a friar may have cooked and lived, where pilgrims may have slept, where priests taught native Americans the high rituals of the church.
They will need to ensure the structure's preservation, so that it will still be here when they return. They will cover the foundation with clear plastic, and pour clean sand over the remains so that visitors will be able to make out the outline of the buildings.
"My hope would be that we'll be back out here within a year," Waters said. "That depends on getting funding for this project. Hopefully, with everything we found and the significance of this site, we won't have too much difficulty getting funding."
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