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Students uncover history in Archaeology Field School

Archaeology student teaser

Spending six weeks digging in a trash pile is not typically how students want to spend the summer, but Juliana Sims, a senior anthropology student, was more than up for the task. 


The daily excavation was part of the University of North Florida's Summer Archaeological Field School — an annual transformational experience hosted each year by UNF's Archaeology Lab in partnership with area residents and national and state parks. This year, students explored a site along the St. Johns River in the Theodore Roosevelt Area of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, a place inhabited by Native Americans more than 2,000 years ago. The class dug through shell middens, aka trash piles, where oyster shells and other trash would be discarded by the tribes. 

For Sims, who is also minoring in history, digging through the middens provided an opportunity to look into Northeast Florida’s past and the lives of those who lived here. Among the discarded shells and animal bones were tools, beads and pieces of pottery. According to Keith Ashley, assistant professor of anthropology and coordinator of archaeological research, Northeast Florida had some of the earliest pottery-making communities in North America. 

“Everything we found was fascinating,” said Sims. “This is how we learn about native peoples — by
going to where they were and digging. By finding tools and bones, we see what they ate and learn more about their daily life.”

The middens on the site are tightly packed with shells and difficult to get a shovel through. One midden explored by the students was about 5 feet deep, with radiocarbon tests of shells dating back to 450-400 B.C.! Another smaller midden dated from 40 B.C. – A.D. 50. 

According to Ashley, shell mining in the area during the first half of the 20th century damaged the middens, making it difficult to determine what the site actually looked like or how big the mounds actually were. Still, based on pottery recovered by UNF and artifacts recovered by the University of Florida in the 1950s, Ashley says it is likely Native Americans were collecting oysters, fishing and living at the site between 500 BC and AD 500. “We don’t believe they were here continuously during that time, but instead, repeatedly visited the area to exploit the rich marsh resources,” he said.

Just about all the students seemed to feel the magnitude of standing on the same ground as the ancient tribes and touching tools or pottery they held. At every excavation, even the smallest finds stir emotions. “Holding pieces in your hand that native people held is impactful. You have a connection and you start to understand,” Sims said. “They were thriving here. It was a real civilization.”

The transformational field experience is open to 15 – 20 students each summer, and during some years, the public has even been invited to join excavations. Dr. Robert “Buzz” Thunen, director of UNF’s Archaeology Lab, founded the University’s Anthropology program as well as the field school in the late 1980s. Since then, students and faculty have explored sites at Big Talbot Island, Cedar Point, Mill Cove, Fort Caroline and more — including those on private property and in government parklands. 

“It is a nice reciprocal relationship,” Thunen said of the partnership with national and state parks. “The experience enriches the University and our parks by providing important contextual information on prehistory and early history of our area. We continue to gain valuable insight into our native peoples.” 

State and federal parks are pleased to host UNF’s students for the fact-finding missions, and in turn, get new information to use on websites, in exhibits and tours and in marketing materials. In addition, information from digs plays an important role in park management plans. 

“The Field School is such a win-win for the National Park Service and UNF’s students,” said Morgan Baird, supervisor exhibit specialist at the Theodore Roosevelt Area of the Timucuan Preserve. “Through their excavations, the students help us pinpoint what was going on in certain areas in our parks, and in turn, we
are able to share that information with the public.”

The Archaeology Lab, which is part of UNF’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, also shares its findings with community groups and through exhibits, including a current UNF exhibition running through September at MOSH downtown titled “Native Networks.” The exhibit was put together by students as part of a Will Cummer Archaeology internship. 

Ashley said artifacts found by students and faculty are analyzed and studied in the Archaeology Lab for about a year, then sent to the National Park Service or State of Florida for long-term storage. Items can often be checked out if needed for further analysis. 

There is no doubt that Florida’s First Coast captivates and provides many opportunities for students interested in archaeology. “Our professors are amazing, and there is so much history along this coast,” said Sims. “We are just so fortunate to be here and have this area to explore.”