UNF digs deeper to reveal possible home village center
Victoria Hayes and Kaia Lacey found buried treasure on Wednesday morning as they used spoons to gently scrape the side of a small hole during an archaeological dig on Big Talbot Island.
The pirate gold was not the wealth discovered by these University of North Florida archeology students, but a curved piece of glazed pottery that offers greater clues to a Native American village dating back four centuries among these trees. .
“Oh, that’s beautiful,” said one student as he drove by, the sand still stuck to it.
The majolica pottery piece, one side glazed blue and white, is Spanish, not Native American. Its discovery in this excavation site means that it may have been given or traded to a member of the Mocama tribe who thrived in this area from the 1400s to the early 1600s. More importantly, it was discovered in what appears to be a community council house 50 to 60 feet in diameter in what is believed to be the Mocama village of Sarabay.
If it is a council house, it was the center of life for a sizeable village of about 100 people, said UNF Archeology Laboratory Director Keith Ashley.
“It’s really important,” Ashley said. “There has not been a council house or large structure like this found in North Florida. … We would have the first Timucuan council house if that’s what it turns out to be, and that lets us know what it looks like here at the center of the community and the artifacts associated with council meetings.
Mocama Archaeological Project
The dig is part of the UNF Archeology Laboratory’s ongoing Mocama Archaeological Project that focuses on the Timucua-speaking people who lived along the Atlantic coast of northern Florida. The site is deep in the woods of Big Talbot Island State Park on the north shore of Duval County, accessible only by a winding path through palm trees.
Today, only a few nearby houses indicate civilization on this strip of wooded land between the Mud River and Simpson Creek.
But in the late 1500s and early 1600s, French and Spanish settlers moving to northeast Florida encountered members of Mocama. This Timucua-speaking Native American chiefdom had thrived for centuries in an area estimated at 19,000 square miles, including what is now Big Talbot Island.
Mocama translates to “sea,” the researchers said. But little else was known about the Mocama chiefdom until Ashley decided to dig the area deeper after the 1998/1999 “shovel tests” – small excavations every 25 meters at the southern end of the island – revealed promising artifacts.
Some were a thousand years old in one area, but other artifacts were from the 1500s and 1600s in another, he said.
“We probably had a large community on the island 1,000 years ago, and it broke up around 1250,” Ashley said as she walked down the path. “What you had was people moving around for the next two hundred years on the island and on the mainland. Then around 1450 they begin to settle again. This is the community we are in now.
Early French accounts from the late 1500s indicated that the dominant chief in the Jacksonville area was Saturiwa, whose village may have been in the Mayport area. There is mention of the village of Sarabay on an island north of the Saint John River from a Spanish priest living in San Juan del Puerto on the island of Fort George in 1602. And a sea captain in 1609 mentions the islands of San Juan (Fort George Island), Santa Maria (Amelia Island) and Sarabay.
“So everything leads us to believe that Sarabay is Big Talbot Island, and we believe the community of Sarabay is also on Big Talbot Island,” Ashley said.
It was “an accident, just luck” that the expansion of one of the 1998/1999 test sites revealed evidence of a wall trench where a house once stood, Ashley said. It was a “truly unique” find, he said, as he stood inside the alleged perimeter of the council house.
“It was right over there, about 20 yards from where we are now,” Ashley said. ”… We found all this great stuff: a piece of Spanish brass scabbard; we had Spanish pottery. But we still had a lot of Native American stuff and we thought it was a great area.
Work resumed there, expanding the earlier site to see if it could have been a Timucua village. And in 2020, UNF students led by Ashley and a state permit to dig “got lucky,” he said.
At the bottom of the lighter sand of hundreds of years ago were dark spots. It could be the remains of 11 wooden posts that supported what is believed to be the 16th century council house, the center of the village, he said.
“We started to expand it and follow it,” he said, pointing to the arch of stakes marking those posts in a clearing surrounded by oaks, palms and cypresses on Wednesday.
“We saw a curve, a really distinctive curve and it’s just a much larger diameter than we expected,” he added. “We thought maybe we had a regular house, but it’s just started to get bigger and bigger, protruding now, and it’s maybe a little early, maybe 50 or 60 feet in diameter .”
No sweat for these college students
About twenty students worked methodically in four precisely dug trenches in the clearing. They carefully scrape the sand, sifting it to find pieces of pottery, fine brushstrokes revealing intricate swirling patterns 400 years old.
Annie Bitner, who is on an undergraduate scholarship, said finding a council house can reveal so much. So is the discovery of native unglazed pottery known as colonoware in a corner of the council house site. This is significant, indicating that this village interacted with European settlers, she said.
“Finding a council house can tell us about the size of the population here in the village and can also determine where other houses are here,” she said. “…Colonoware is indigenously made pottery, influenced by the look of European ships, so they started making pitchers and gizmos instead of just bowls.”
Senior Magdalynne Alley is glad UNF has a hands-on archeology program that focuses on the local Timucua as she spent part of Wednesday in a trench at the south end of the dig. While the COVID-19 pandemic has limited many archaeological digs elsewhere, UNF has pursued and uncovered this important find, she said.
“We can still do our field schools, carry on as usual, and we’re learning about Jacksonville’s native history, which I think is really cool,” she said. “…Dr. Ashley has been working on this for decades and I’m glad we finally got to uncover some of the things he worked so hard on.”
The site revealed bone and shell tools, as well as pieces of a Spanish olive jar. An estimated 10,000 small and large pieces of native pottery have been found, some carbon dated to around 1580 to 1620. Some can be traced to the chiefdoms of St. Augustine, indicating trade between those who lived here centuries ago. centuries, Bitner said.
“We know there’s a wider chain of communication, commerce and networking between them across Florida and the country,” she said. “I’m sweating here, but I love it!”
On Wednesday, two tiny jaw pieces with teeth were discovered, possibly the remains of a 16th-century meal. Other students are working at a central site where the main fire may have occurred, with evidence of charcoal found.
“It’s really way too early to tell if it’s center fire,” Ashley warned.
Ashley doesn’t know if people just left the village in the early 1600s, the last time anyone mentions Sarabay, or if they just moved to other villages. But as the excavation wraps up this month, Ashley and the students hope to return to find the rest of the council house and possibly the ‘everyday households’ around it.