In honor of Archaeology Month, The Florida Preservationist Spring 2017 issue highlighted this stories that reinforces the importance of the industry and profession.
In February 2017, while working near the well-traveled corner of Charlotte and King Streets in St. Augustine, City Archaeologist Carl 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 where the Fiesta Mell now sits, was somewhere near the middle Charlotte Street.
As of March 14, 2017, three locations have been examined under the floor damaged by Hurricane Matthew. Two areas on the north and south sides of the room were found to be devoid of human remains—a consequence of tidal erosion along the bayfront.
This was not unexpected as previous archaeological investigations around the building containing the room to be refloored, showed evidence of the effects of tidal scouring and subsequent infill with soil during the 19th century.
The exception to this observation was the area initially investigated and found to contain human remains. The area investigated was initially limited in space (roughly a 2 ft by 2 ft square), but with approval of the property owner a 15 ft by 8 ft unit was eventually excavated revealing the presence of 14 graves.
Human remains were buried under the floor of the church based on the presence of clay remnants within the fill of the graves. This is not unexpected given limited floor space within the church. Church burial was the preferred location for the Spanish during the colonial era. What was unexpected was the plethora of intrusive burials (i.e., burials dug into burials). In some locations four interments were found placed in more-or-less the same spot. Three areas within the excavation unit were found to contain multiple burials.
One may ask, why did only one of the three areas examined within the room contain graves? While a definitive answer will have to await project completion, one explanation may be the occurrence of a coquina stone wall. The wall occurred near the eastern limits of the exposed graves. Essentially, the wall acted as a deterrent to tidal erosion. When the wall was constructed and its original intentions are open to debate; however, the graves exposed were behind that more than 36-inch wide by 18-inch deep barrier. No human remains were found east of the barrier. It should be noted that entry into the church was along the east side, with the alter at the west end of the church. The possibility exist that the barrier may overlay archaeological evidence (such as post hole stains) that marked the eastern boundary of the church.
Lean more about this story, St. Augustine and archaeology online through the City of St. Augustine.
Carl Halbirt is an Archaeologist for the City of St. Augustine.