by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2012
Park Ranger Craig Morris leaning toward a riverfront home on the left side of the road. “That’s it right there,” he says. “That’s the house I grew up in.” He points to the oyster shells that peek through the manicured lawns of the Fort Caroline subdivision. Every house from here down to the bluff sits on the remains of ancient Timucuan Indian garbage heaps, the oyster shell middens beneath their lawns and their house foundations.
When Craig Morris was a kid in the 1970s, his family had just moved into the neighborhood, a brand new subdivision in one of the only parts of town with hills. Fort Caroline was named after the French fort founded here in the 1560s.
He walked along the edge of the river near his new home, and he saw hundreds of human bones protruding toward the water from the bluff. It marked his entire life, instantly. He told his parents. His parents called the police. The police said the bones were definitely human, but they were not recent.
Developers had built the subdivision on the remains of a Timucuan Indian village, and Craig Morris’s childhood home sat on top of a burial mound. Now the ground beneath this house is part of an archaeological site called Grant Mound 8DU14. Though archaeologists have excavated hundreds of Timucuan bones here, developers had bulldozed the land and scrambled the soil.
Welcome to downtown Jacksonville, A.D. 1400. The park ranger is talking about Shields Mound, 12 miles northeast of downtown Jacksonville, A.D. 2000. What is here now is a hill. What protrudes is oyster shell. When Huguenots landed at Northeast Florida in the early 1560s and built Fort Caroline, the Shields Mound area is where the French would have found the Timucuans.
What appears now is a hill. Once a small simple temple topped the mound. Archaeologists found 150 Timucuan bodies buried here.
Jacksonville was incorporated in 1832. Fort Caroline was built 450 years ago. The Timucuans fished for oysters here when the pyramids were built in Egypt, though by then they were already ancient residents.
See how those trees are tall and then all of the sudden, there are no big trees from there to the river? That difference is where the old riverbank line was. All the houses from here to the river are built on dredge spoil. Come back from the dredge spoil houses to the old riverbank line. There’s a small mound surrounded by longleaf pine trees. The guy who developed this subdivision gave up three housing lots to protect this ancient gravesite. He didn’t have to do that. It was a highly moral act.
The little boy who hiked up to the hundreds of human bones sticking out of the bluff still does so. That day won’t stop happening. Something happens to you when you come alone to the bones of people who leave no other record, and you know their lives were as real to them long before Jesus Christ as yours is to you in your earliest years in the early 1970s (A.D.).