GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida begins its 20th season of archaeological fieldwork since 1976 this week in St. Augustine at the site of America’s first colony, founded by explorer Pedro Menendez in 1565.
Though the original colony lasted only nine months, researchers have uncovered more than 97,000 artifacts left behind by Spanish immigrants, valued at nearly $3.5 million and recently donated by the Fraser family to the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. Now researchers will begin unearthing the colony’s fortifications to better understand its defenses, said Kathleen Deagan, retired distinguished curator of historical archaeology at the Florida Museum.
“These artifacts are the only evidence we have as to how people lived in the colony and what objects they used,” Deagan said. “The documents from the period only briefly describe the settlers’ time at the site. There is nothing there about their lives and how people coped with being in a new, strange place. Now that we know more about their lives within the colony, we want to understand how they defended it.”
The Frasers own and operate the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park where the first colony site is located. In February, the family visited the museum’s historical archaeology collections at Dickinson Hall on the UF campus to observe how the donated artifacts are being pieced together and studied to understand where the materials originated and how they were made. Park manager John Fraser said his family donated the artifacts to ensure they would be preserved and made available to students and researchers.
“If we kept the artifacts at the park, they would become ornaments stored away in a drawer,” Fraser said. “At the museum, they can be viewed and studied by researchers and students who, through their work, can bring the first colony to life.”
The property is one of the places in St. Augustine where the historical context has remained intact and uncompromised—making it a prime location for archaeological work, said Florida Museum of Natural History Director Douglas Jones.
“Many historical sites in the area are gone now or compromised due to development,” Jones said. “Once a site is disturbed, it has really lost its context and that is what is important to archaeologists. This makes the Fraser family’s gift that much more significant from a research standpoint.”
The artifacts and accompanying research allowed the museum to develop the recently opened “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins” traveling exhibit on display at Government House in St. Augustine. The Florida Museum will display the exhibit at UF in 2016.
“The story of the first colony is fascinating because it is the story of how people with different languages, cultures, and religions, who looked so unfamiliar to one another, lived together for nearly a year,” Fraser said. “It’s an inspiring story for today’s world. Having that history preserved was important to my father and important to my grandfather, and we are going to facilitate research being done here as long as we can.”
The artifacts include pottery sherds, glass beads and an olive jar that was reconstructed at the Florida Museum. The Frasers donated the collection, valued at nearly $3.5 million including the cost to unearth the artifacts, to UF in December.
Some of the pieces, including an amulet typically worn by infants to ward off evil spirits and an ornamental silver piece most likely made by a Native American with silver salvaged from a Spanish shipwreck, are rare and tell the story of a diverse society where Spaniards, Africans and Native Americans interacted nearly 450 years ago, Deagan said.
“In American history we have been very blind to the diverse and early Spanish presence,” she said. “This research is important because it facilitates bringing Spanish colonial history into the mainstream of American history. The Spanish were at the roots of American colonization and surely affected the British strategies to colonize after that. I think it is time for the United States to accept this story.”
Thought by its previous owners to be the landing site of Ponce de Leon, the property was purchased in 1927 by the Fraser family in an effort to preserve the history of St. Augustine in the midst of heavy development, Fraser said. The family kept the park open during the Great Depression, and in 1934 a park gardener found a skull belonging to a 17th-century Native American. But it was not until 1992 that Deagan and fellow researchers determined the site was the first colony of Menendez.
One goal of future work at the site will be to discover more about what occurred outside of the colony, Deagan said. Researchers have identified a large Native American town and America’s first Franciscan mission on the property.
“We hope that eventually more work will be done in those areas,” Deagan said. “But until at least 2015, we will be focusing on Medendez and his colony.”
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