Big Talbot Island: Sarabay

by Tim Gilmore, 6/18/2021

1. Locating the Beginning of the End

We’re standing on the site of the lost Timucuan Indian community of Sarabay. For more than 20 years, University of North Florida archaeologist Keith Ashley has suspected this wild and overgrown location, distant from main roads and beaten paths on Big Talbot Island. Now, he says, there’s no doubt.

from Adventures in Florida Archaeology, 2021

Standing above the excavation site, Ashley points in several directions over surrounding marshes to triangulate this location from others mentioned in French and Spanish writings 450 years ago.

“San Juan Island was today’s Fort George Island,” he says, “where Mission San Juan del Puerto was, Santa Maria Island is now Amelia Island and in between them was the isle of Sarabay.” As for Little Talbot Island, it didn’t even exist. “The northern end of it was there, but it was little more than a sand bar.” So, he says, looking at the dense humid woods all around him, “This is it. We’ve done work all over the island and the only part where we find significant quantities of what dates to the 15- and 1600s is right here.”

Laudonnière, image courtesy National Park Service

René Goulaine de Laudonnière, French colonizer and founder of the ill-fated Fort Caroline, referred in his writings of the 1560s both to “Saranai” and “Sarravahi.” In 1602, the Spanish priest Francisco Pareja, who occupied the post on Fort George Island for 33 years, wrote of nine indigenous communities he’d visited within his evangelical jurisdiction. Pareja located the one called Sarabay about “a fourth of a league” from his doctrina, his abode, right about where Keith Ashley and his students are digging.

The six week dig is coming to a close. It’s been unusually productive. Standing over a quadrant of excavated earth, Ashley points to grids on a hand-drawn map and explains how the accumulation of years of finds shows just how much activity took place here.

They’ve found large sherds of Spanish pottery, even earthenware called Majolica, specifically a kind called Seville Blue on Blue, which began production in the mid 1500s. Avocational archaeologist William Jones found a piece of Majolica on the surface of a dirt road here in the 1960s and hypothesized the site was Sarabay, but it would take another half century to find the next fragment.

And what do these European artifacts mean for the Mocama, the local group of Timucuan Indians, and related tribes up and down the coast?

As The Florida Times-Union’s Matt Soergel wrote on October 7, 2020, the onset of European colonization and domination began the end for indigenous people who’d lived here for thousands of years.

Soergel quoted Ashley: “May 1, 1562,” the day French colonizer Jean Ribault entered the St. Johns River, which he called the River May, “the daily rhythm of Mocama life just halted. The longterm impact of that was going to be disastrous for the Mocama. They only had another 150 years left in Northeast Florida. They just didn’t know it yet.”

“By 1710,” Soergel writes, “observers said that far northeastern Florida was basically empty of human life.”

2. One’s Own Self

Keith Ashley radiates passion for what he’s doing. He’s as gracious and kind as he is inspired. As he trudges through the woods in his UNF ballcap, jeans and blue t-shirt, talking about LiDAR maps, stratigraphy and how the Mocamans burnt corn cobs in smudge pits to create fields of insect repellent, you might guess he’s this wiry because his intensity burns up his calories.

“I’m more interested in the archaeology of this area than that of Scotland or Ireland,” he says, tramping through palmetto leaves and greenbrier. “I care about that archaeology too, but I’m more interested in these people than the people I come from.”

Though Ashley grew up in Jacksonville, he thought that once he’d left for college at Auburn University, he’d never return. Yet events took unexpected turns, as they often do. He began as a Civil Engineering major, but experienced a reverse epiphany in Statistics class, understanding it was not what he wanted to do. He looked up Archaeology in the Auburn catalog, not realizing archaeology courses would be listed under Anthropology. So he assumed Auburn just didn’t do archaeology.

“So I took some more classes,” he says, walking ahead of me through the dense dark green, “and I’m walking across campus one day and I walked right past the archaeology lab. So I stopped in my tracks and went in and there was Dr. John Cottier, the man who’d become my mentor. Not that I knew that, of course. So the next day I signed up for Anthropology.”

That first day, Ashley says, Cottier told him that if he switched, there wouldn’t be a lot of jobs, that it’s hard to make a living, that working in academia is highly competitive. “Other than marrying my wife and having my family,” he says, “it’s the best decision I ever made.”

Now he finds that exploring a fuller scope of Timucuan, and specifically Mocaman, archaeological heritage is his life’s work. Though advancements in understanding what the Timucuans left behind proceeded here and there in the 1950s and ’60s, nothing “in terms of longterm research” happened then.

“Once I get into an area, I want to stay in that area for a long period of time, something akin to longterm ethnography,” Ashley explains. “I want to know the full history. I didn’t want to use the Mocama as a stepping stone, just study it for five years and move onto some other job. I decided this is what I want to do. And I want to understand not just this time period. I want to understand the entire history.”

1602 Pareja map, from Adventures in Florida Archaeology, 2021

He’s working on two books at the moment, one with Denise Bossy, UNF associate professor of history, tentatively called Our Land: Indigenous Northeast Florida. The idea is to try, as much as possible, to understand indigenous people as their own subjective beings, rather than as Others encountered from a European perspective.

The Timucua were, of course, as much their own selves as the French were theirs. Until they were gone.

3. This is Where They

Leaning over the day’s findings, UNF archaeology students point to bird bones, arrowheads and maps. McKenna Lenoir points to some kind of animal tooth temporarily stored in a Ziploc bag, but she’s not quite sure what kind. She and Daniella Kapuschansky discuss a small chert projectile blade. “It’s super crumbly though,” Kapuschansky says. Lenoir points to patterns that indicate “weaker materials. So it’s really brittle. It could just fall apart.”

It’s the fourth arrowhead they’ve found. This one dates to the time of French and Spanish contact, but they’ve found other artifacts a millennium old.

They discuss findings both natural and cultural. Lenoir holds up a tiny whelk, which looks like it’s marbled with estuarine patterns, then points to thin grooves cut on either side. Of course, excavating Timucuan artifacts, the cultural and natural are much more closely connected than our own manufactures, and that fact excites these archaeology students, each of them on their first dig. “Lots of things we find are natural,” Lenoir says, “but worked, and that makes it an artifact.”

They’re cognizant of digging into layers, levels, places folded into this space. It’s as strange for them to work here, digging into what little is left (because the brutal Florida climate obliterates everything) of people long vanished, as it is to imagine this trans-temporal contact happening the other way around: the Mocama people living their lives here, going about their daily business, when 21st century Americans arrive with different language and clothes and values, asking these living people, 500 years ago, how their daily lives work and how these Americans’ own ancestors would bring an end to them.

Jodi Gilmore, no relation, after jokes about having a surname in common and my promises not to reveal the family secrets, tells me what it’s like to be one of the first to arrive in the morning. Now I think we might be related after all.

“In the mornings, when it’s quiet, you think about it. I get here early, about 7:30, with a couple of the others to set everything up. You hear the birds become active in the trees all around you. You hear the coast over there and the water and you’re hearing everything around you and it’s really peaceful and serene. And it does make you think about the people living in this area. So long ago. This is it. This is where they lived.”

4. Digging Down through Earth and Time

The most definitive thing left to find for Sarabay would be a major structure like a council house. Yet the people who lived here for thousands of years built with wood and thatch and Florida’s ecosystem recycles such materials frenetically.

“We’ve gotten some large post holes we’re excited about,” Keith Ashley says. He points at layers of color in the soil, where the earth, beneath the ground, marks time. “You can see that darker upper soil. It’s been impacted by plantation-era ploughing. It’s not mechanical ploughing, so it wasn’t as destructive, probably horse- and mule-drawn. Still, doing this every year for a century is going to cause some damage.”

Probably the Houstons, the family who farmed here, grew indigo and cotton, the same crops farmed by Zephaniah Kingsley on Fort George Island and others in the area. In fact, small tabby ruins dating back to the Houstons’ time here in the early 1800s lie far back in the woods, harder to find even that the thousand year old Grand Shell Ring. Nearby, students have found musket balls and early American salt-glazed tableware.

from Adventures in Florida Archaeology, 2021

Pointing to color variations in the soil, Ashley says, “We dig down to where that lighter soil starts, we call that the interface, so what we’re looking for is anything that’s penetrated into that lighter stuff that’s below the plough zone and is intact.”

It’s too early to know for sure if this space once held a council house, but whatever it was, it was big, and a council house seems the best bet. Even so, dealing with the Mocama is dealing with mystery. Nobody knows what their council houses looked like.

Archaeologists use council house models derived from other seemingly related Southeastern tribes, but those models can’t predict what further years of digging here will find. One thing they know for sure is that the depictions of the Timucua engraved by Belgian Theodor de Bry, supposedly based on French artist Jacque le Moyne’s lost renderings, are bunk. Keith Ashley calls the engravings, at best, “clip art of what various Europeans had depicted.”

It’s a ghostly ambition, trying to understand vanished people, not in a paranormal sense, but in the true sense of the historic. We can only find them from the present, where they don’t exist, so marking the centuries through layers of the earth becomes time travel. Such is the strange and important work of the archaeologist. Such is the work done in respect for these vanished people.