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A partnership between the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve (U.S. National Park Service), Talbot Islands State Park, and UNF's Archaeology Lab


As you cross the Buckman Bridge and look east down the St. Johns River toward the ocean, with all the development, it is hard to imagine the riverine environment when the French [1562], then the Spanish [1565], made contact with the Timucua peoples.  But, in an undeveloped environment where two or more habitats touch, it increased the variety of resources, which provided an ideal habitat for the Timucua who had lived in this rich environment for more than 1,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Within 100 years they would all be gone: the Timucua peoples have no living descendants and the written record comes from the vantage point of Europeans. So it is up to archaeologists to discover the evidence of their story.


A shovel test
While an ideal environment for native peoples 500 years ago, the Florida jungle makes for a challenging environment for students, working in the summer heat and humidity. But they have been up for the challenge every summer for the past nineteen years. Professor Thunen keeps a machete with him to clear a path the first day of “Field School.” Hiking into the dig, students put up with deer flies and Banana Spiders; ticks are a daily hazard, snakes an occasional concern, the nature of the jungle itself.  One student, said, “We are lucky: we don’t have to live in a fly-infested jungle.  I think that grinning and bearing it is a learning experience in itself. It is extremely important.” Most students really enjoy being in the field, feeling that they are uncovering history in a tangible way—uncovering what no one has seen in hundreds of years, finding lost history and culture.


The purpose of both Parks is to preserve the environmental and cultural landscapes, which are national treasures.  UNF’s relationship with The Timucuan Ecological Preserve and the Talbot Island State Park has deepened our understanding of the lives of native peoples and those Europeans who made first contact. The practice of archaeology teaches students the scientific process in both fieldwork and laboratory analysis. During “Field School” the team of archaeologists, Robert Thunen, Keith Ashley, and Vicki Rolland, have carefully taught cohorts of UNF students to help the Parks better understand their history.


Imagine being the student who uncovered a “sacred heart of Jesus” ring in a shovel test—she was the first person to touch it since the 17th century, helping them to define the mission of Santa Cruz on Black Hammock Island on the National Park Property at Cedar Point. That Field School in 2005 was funded by the National Park to assist in defining cultural resources in the Park. The ring made the team realize this might be a big discovery. The survey revealed that this was the place to focus.
Archaeologists are detectives, striving to make sense of the past by finding evidence recorded in the land.  During an earlier Field School, in 1998, UNF students and the faculty leaders conducted work on Big Talbot Island, thanks to a State grant to do an archaeological survey. The State of Florida made this investment so that the Park could understand its cultural resources. This Field School uncovered both Native and Spanish potsherds that helped to define the historic Native village of Sarabay—long lost to the historic record of the areas. That year and the next, Field School excavated a small section of that native village.

An excavation pit


What do students get from Field School when they participate in an on-going excavation?  The Search for Fort Caroline has been an ongoing research project with the National Park.  In 2004, the Field School surveyed the Fort Caroline National Memorial property.  In 2015, a much larger survey in Roosevelt Preserve and surrounding neighborhoods revealed no evidence of French or Spanish artifacts.  It helped to define the prehistory of the area, but no evidence for Fort Caroline was found. The field work was, as always, a rich experience for students. While the Fort remains elusive, students found plenty of earlier native material. This was an especially important opportunity for the students to evaluate the evidence—historical documents vs. archaeological evidence. This challenges the students to think about what constitutes evidence for the Fort.




The ongoing partnership is important because archaeology is hard, meticulous work—and it takes time. Even with 20 students excavating, on average each summer, it can take years to define the area of a Spanish mission.  The initial survey of Cedar Point on Black Hammock Island [National Park] took place in 2005 and discovered the location for the Spanish Mission of Santa Cruz y San Buenaventura de Guadalquini.  Field School returned in 2006, but it wasn’t until 2007 that they defined features associated with a building.  One of the last shovel tests came up with corn and dark soil.  The professors knew the potential of this discovery—Field School spent several years uncovering evidence of a big structure. Its purpose remains undefined: it is not the Church; it is probably a kitchen or multi-use building. Archaeologists must be content with ambiguity. The excavations revealed 2 crosses (1 broken) and gun flints. The latter was unusual, as the Spanish didn’t allow the natives to have weapons.  It suggests perhaps they got the guns from the British.

The collaboration between the National and State Parks [The Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve and Talbot Islands State Park] and UNF’s Archaeology Lab represents an ideal partnership as they have collaborated to build value together. Every summer for nineteen years, UNF students have helped the Parks by uncovering north Florida’s vibrant early prehistory and history. 


For more information about UNF's Archaeology Laboratory, please visit: