by Tim Gilmore, 7/16/2012
Sifting dirt and clay through quarter-inch screen openings for five hours teaches you the relativity of value. Seventeen aisles of a Walmart Supercenter might contain absolutely nothing of value to a shopper looking for a certain item, but if an hour’s work of sifting dirt yields a small piece of cross-simple-stamped American Indian pottery from the 1680s or 1690s, you feel you’ve struck a gold mine. If you find a piece of Spanish or Mexican majolica, still lustrous, blue and white, or green and blue and orange, you are the richest worker at the dig for a moment.
Archaeologists from the University of North Florida—Keith Ashley, Robert Thunen, Vicki Rolland—have been leading UNF archaeology students and public field school students through the excavation of this site for three years. One more year of digging might do it.
Slowly it becomes clear there was a building here, but you’re looking not for its presence. You’re looking for its absence. You have to connect the dots between things that no longer exist. At first, you can’t see it at all. The invisible is invisible. After enough digging and screening in the 103-degree heat index, the invisible starts to appear. The trick is to see what’s not there, because it’s still invisible.
The site was an Indian village under the control of a Spanish mission. The particular linguistic subgroup of Timucuan Indians who lived here were the Mocama. The Mocama, however, were not the Mocama they had been before the Spanish. They’d been Christianized, but they were still not Christian, not really. They had been Hispanicized, but they were certainly not Spanish either. They were brutalized and sickened by the Spanish, no doubt, but they were still somehow themselves, a hybrid people. When the Spanish moved their Franciscan mission from St. Simons Island in Georgia to what would later become Black Hammock Island in Northeast Florida, just across from an already established mission on Fort George Island, they moved Misión San Buenaventura de Guadalquini to an area previously known as Vera Cruz, and the names combined and altered into Santa Cruz y San Buenaventura de Guadalquini. They were only here for 12 years, 1684 to 1696.
Archaeology is no place for the impatient, for the sloppy, for the imprecise. Every square centimeter that emerges from the ground must be analyzed. You’d no idea that from so close to the surface, centimeters, you could find pottery shards from more than three centuries ago. What was before us is directly beneath us. The artifacts of an alien culture lie just beneath our feet, but then, sifting through dirt for hours, you realize how short is your life, that the Mocama were here for tens of thousands of years, and then you know that you are the alien. Just as you’d always suspected.
The world is too big to focus, but in square centimeters, you can see the world. The dirt asks you to be patient. The earth dug from beneath your feet asks you to be mindful. You can only breathe slowly and be meticulous.
Meticulous. Vicki, the zooarch specialist—zoological archaeology—points out what tiny vertebrae come from different kinds of fish. It’s important to find, to separate, to document, and later in the lab, to quantify and extrapolate from such small objects, in order to understand what the Mocama were eating, what the influence of the Spanish may have been on their diet, what marsh food they were ignoring for what delicacies beneath the surface of the marsh. Yes, the preponderance of shells here are oyster, but the number of nassa mud snail shells tells us they bypassed easier shellfish for these particular gastropods.
Meticulous. Vicki shows you two items, smaller than your pinky fingernails. She asks you what you think they might be. Honestly, without their having been pointed out, you’d never notice them. If you did, you wouldn’t know if they were rock or shell or something else for which you’ve no name.
They’re otoliths. You have them in your inner ear. In some young fish, they’re visible from the outside. They’re balance bones. They’re what you have in
common with a trout. She shows you two of them and tells you what different fish they come from. As you dig, as you screen, she points out miniscule fish scales, turtle bone (the shell isn’t really shell, ya know), the occasional pig tooth. All these things are remarkably preserved.
Just beneath your feet, centimeters away, all these things are remarkably preserved because the Mocama were fisherfolk and they ate oysters more than anything else. Most of what you find beneath your feet here is oyster shell, and the calcium from the oyster shell preserves as delicate an item as a fish scale.
You are, of course, digging through these people’s garbage. All this shell is the refuse from oyster feasts. You spend long days in the mosquitos and yellow flies and horseflies and ticks, sifting through the trash of the Mocama.
For there is truth in trash. Spanish documents from the late 1600s sometimes don’t match what archaeologists find in the dirt. The trash is physical evidence. A text, however, a written text bears a heavy authority. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s a stolen authority. If Documents A, B, and C all agree, it’s not necessarily corroboration of a claim. It’s sometimes because Document C, relying on the authority of Document B, copied its claim, but Document B, relying on the authority of Document A, copied its claim, and the original claim was wrong. So trash becomes arbiter.
In the 1970s and 1980s, University of Arizona archaeologist William Rathje directed the Garbage Project, which treated contemporary human garbage as archaeology and the makers of that garbage and their attitudes toward it as anthropological subjects. The study came to be called garbology. One of the garbologists’ findings, over and over, was that people lied. Matching what trash people threw away against questionnaires of what they said they threw away, the garbologists found that garbage was a private matter and often a shame-trigger. People lied about how much alcohol they consumed, how much smut they purchased, how much red meat they threw away, even the class and status levels of their purchases that ended up in the garbage.
You couldn’t trust personal narratives as much as you could trust a person’s garbage. This insight was the truth of trash.
In the shadow of whatever building was here on Black Hammock Island by Horseshoe Creek, archaeologists and their students and public field school participants find clay pottery, hematite, majolica, animal bones, daub indicating wattle-and-daub construction of walls, beads, oyster shells formed into simple tools, and, every now and then, rarely, a Spanish hand-wrought nail, a brass ring, a Spanish cross. They find circles of dark matter where cedar posts once stood, now rotten, postholes filled with oyster shells and whelks at regular intervals (coincidence or pattern that indicates ritual or some other meaning?). They find sherds of Colonoware, European forms of pottery manufactured by natives with native materials. They find pieces of Spanish olive jar. They find burnt corn kernels. They find peach pits.
Then there are the inexplicable finds that don’t fit into any kind of story we know or can readily make about what happened here. On day three, you find what the zooarch specialist says is a bear toe. Not, she jokes, a centuries-old pastry either. The next day someone else finds an enormous vertebra that, a waiting further testing, is hypothetically claimed to come from a dolphin. The next day, attached to a post hole, a deer skull with the beginning pieces of antler emerges.
What do these things mean? What happened here? The archaeologists will have to be imaginative, but contain themselves to theories most logical until unseated by more logical theories. What do any of us leave behind, and what is its truth? Only ever can it appear as truth if it fits in the reasoning of a narrative. Yes, trash is truth, and yes, we lie, but trash fragments into uncountable pieces and often we don’t even know what we’re being dishonest about.
Somewhere along the way, finding a shard of fired pottery with curvilinear stamped markings that identify it as coming from the Swift Creek era (before the year 800 CE), you want to read the history of one piece of pottery. You want to read of its creation, its use, its abandonment in the abandonment of this mission village, of its submersion into the earth, of its fragmentation underground. Then you want to read the history of each fragment, how they traveled away from each other, how roots and weather and water and various fauna moved them, how they each ended up where they did in relation to all the other pieces of that original vessel. You’ll only find a small number of pieces. Where are the rest? What are the routes and the reasons of their travel beneath the ground?
You think you’ve found very little. The hours go by. You sweat and you sweat. You drink a gallon jug of water. The bugs bite you and bite you. Another field school student, a recent anthropology graduate from the University of North Carolina, says he spent five weeks on a dig in the desert in Peru and found less in all that time than we’ve found in a single day here.
The younger field school students have wanted badly to find a body. The archaeologists themselves feel otherwise. If any human remains surface, the dig would have to cease immediately. Extant Indian tribes would be contacted. The leverage would be theirs in what to do with the remains. We are, after all, digging in the trash of the Mocama, and if human remains were found, we would, after all, be digging in their graves.
And American Indians have had a long strained history with archaeology and have increasingly taken a cynical view to it. The Anishinaabe postmodern writer and scholar Gerald Vizenor spent much of his career deconstructing the very idea of being Indian. Doesn’t “Indian” mean Other-than-European the way Oriental means Other-than-Occidental? Why then should the “Other” ever consent to having the one who names him “Other” dig up his ancestors’ graves to take the remains back to a lab, analyze them, classify them, reduce them to the level of every other museum piece, dehumanize them? Alexander Pope called it “break[ing] a butterfly upon a [Catherine] wheel,” and Wordsworth warned us that “Our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— / We murder to dissect.” On the other hand, the last Timucuan disappeared more than 200 years ago, and archaeologists argue today’s Seminoles and Miccosukees can’t claim a direct kinship to the Mocoma.
No human remains here, but nearby, in 2005, archaeological shovel tests uncovered a small piece of human bone. Brown stains. Possible burial pit by the side of Cedar Point Road. Lower legs uncovered. Upper skeleton extending beneath the asphalt of the road itself. Nearby the full remains of an infant. The National Park Service required the dig units to be covered back up. Excavations limited. Evidence and inductive reasoning suggest the bones are related to the Santa Cruz y Buenaventura de Guadalquini mission and not from the Spanish plantation period or the Americanization of Black Hammock Island.
But something is missing. Something is missing not from 300 years ago or 800 years ago. Artifacts from those time periods are shockingly extant. Instead, something is missing from within the last hundred years.
For this is the site of Buddy’s Fish Camp, remote enough to stay beneath observation during Prohibition, in the early 20th century. The best undercover is the remote. The only way to Black Hammock Island by road is miles and miles through the woods and swamp on Cedar Point Road and New Berlin Road. By boat though, Black Hammock, a barrier island after all, lies just across from Fort George Island.
In the late 1600s, these two barrier islands were connected by Spanish missions to Christianize the Mocama. In the early 1900s, they were connected by rebellion against the American prohibition of alcohol. On Fort George Island, Northeastern bluebloods came to the Ribault Club to defy federal law and drink up. On Black Hammock Island, Southern rednecks came to Buddy’s Fish Camp to defy federal law and drink up. Bluebloods / rednecks. The barrier islands lie within view of each other across Horseshoe Creek, Sisters Creek, and the Fort George River.
According to the stories told by Black Hammock locals who descend from Black Hammock locals, Buddy’s Fish Camp should turn up parts of moonshine stills and stolen cars. These things don’t turn up in the site of the Spanish-Mocaman building currently being excavated, but both archaeologists and locals suggest they exist scattered out in the dense and bug-swarmed subtropical woods. On the other hand, fish camp buildings were located all through these woods and the compacting of the site might indicate a fish camp dirt road once bore down on these bones and post holes and pot sherds and Majolica fragments.
Maybe the Mocama never imagined being watched from a distance and they left small material fragments of rich lives just below the surface, while the moonshiners who used Buddy’s Fish Camp always did their best to cover their tracks, leaving few tracks scattered only intermittently in the brutal woods even now. The moonshiners left little trash to tell their truth.