Shell rock crushed underfoot as we stepped out of my car into the Big Talbot jungle. The backroad we just followed for miles ended in seemingly nowhere with the thicket too dense to even see a few feet off the road. The sun was at its peak yet was barely peeking through the canopy above us, no-see-ums buzzed at our faces, and sweat was already running down my neck. A wiry middle-aged man appeared in a narrow clearing and motioned for us to follow him.
The man in question was Keith Ashley, professor of archaeology at the University of North Florida, who was taking us to see the progress he and his students have made on one of the most unique archaeological discoveries in North Florida: the long forgotten Indigneous community center of Sarabay from the late 1500s.
Ashley first started work in the area back in 1998. Sampling through small shovel excavations, usually only a few feet wide and a few feet deep, Doctor Ashley and colleagues discovered countless Indigenous artifacts, like bits of pottery, remnants of animal bones from meals and shell made arrowheads, and what they thought to be a large Indigenous structure belonging to the Mocama. This distinct group within the Timucuas, North Florida’s most prominent Indigenous group, spoke with a Mocama dialect. Mocama roughly translates to “of the sea,” due to their living proximity and dependence on North Florida’s salt marshes, although no one knows how these Indigenous groups referred to themselves given they didn’t have a written form of communication.
Without a written language system, there is no written documentation from the perspective of these Indigenous groups. Everything we know is from the perspective of colonizers. Ashley is looking to change this by deepening understanding of what life was like for Indigenous Peoples.
“One of the biggest things I have a problem with is we have this Indigenous history and these Indigenous people are in the forefront. As soon as Europeans arrive, all of a sudden, the Indigenous get pushed to the background, it’s all about the French, it’s all about the Spanish. And [Indigenous People] became little bit players of no significance. So, we’re trying to keep them front and center from the beginning of time and when the Europeans arrived, they’re still front and center. That’s what this is really about. What is it really like to be Indigenous in the 1500 and 1600s,” explained Ashley.
After that initial year-long survey on Big Talbot, Ashley decided to return to the area in 2020 to build upon what they found and pursue a deeper understanding of what village life was like for the Mocama. The University of North Florida and local state officials agreed to open the area for a four-year research period. Ashley has been working with UNF archaeology students to not only deepen understanding of Indigenous life but to also foster the next generations of archaeologists and anthropologists.
Since their return to the area, the increased manpower on site has allowed them to open up incredibly large areas; since 2020, they’ve dug and excavated the equivalent of a 6-foot-deep trench longer than the length of a football field. The scale of this dig is incredibly impressive given their process for excavation; shoveling and scraping mere inches at a time as to not harm anything buried beneath.
Their most important find is one they’re continually excavating. Wiith every shovel full comes more confidence in the fact that the large structure they found in the late ’90s is indeed a council house, although further excavation is still required to solidify the hypothesis. A council house is one of the most significant features in an Indigenous village and was the location for political and intertribal conversations and possibly religious ceremonies.
When you hear of archaeologists excavating a large structure, it’s easy to assume they’re pulling large foundations from the ground, but in reality that’s not the case. The Mocamas did not have access to stone and masonry for construction given the landscape, so they used organic materials like woody trees and cross hatched palm fronds to build their structures. Over time, these organic materials decay, especially in the hot and humid climate found on North Florida barrier islands, so excavators are looking for nothing more than changes in soil color and density.
Students and excavators dig in the dirt wearing only socks so as to not impact the soil samples they’re walking on. The excavation takes place at a soil depth untouched by man since the days when the Mocama walked were here, and well below the sediment layer from when this area was used for farming which they call “the plow zone.”
“To us, finding structures has always been the most elusive. It’s not masonry ruins. This is not tabular stone that they’re building up. We don’t have what they have in the Southwest, or in California, where you can actually see the ruins of where these things were. This is all wood and thatch that decomposed for a long time. So I think it really surprises people that the organics from those posts will still stay in the soil, even though the posts themselves have decomposed. And then we can look for these stains to form these various alignments,” he explained.
Ashley, alongside the UNF humanities and history departments, is working to bring his understanding of Indigenous history from the area to the general public in a way that’s easily accesible. About four years ago, they opened a permanent exhibit at the Beaches Museum, the product of a class he joint-taught with history professor Denise Bossy. He believes it to be the most accurate representation of these Indigenous groups, featuring a place where you can hear Timucuan spoken for the first time in 500 years. They are looking to expand upon this through a digital humanities project; a website outlining the narratives and livelihoods of local Indigenous groups. He hopes for it to be ready for the public by the end of this year.
When I asked Ashley about common misconceptions on Indigenous life, he left me with this.
“I think one big thing is that some people think Indigenous people aren’t still here today, they are here. And sometimes we just want to think about them as in the past, but I think it’s really important to try to connect the history of the past with Indigenous people who are living here today. And one of the things I’ve really moved away from, that I don’t like at all, are these terminal narratives of extinction. The Timucua aren’t extinct. Maybe as a coherent group they are, but I think people with Timucua heritage are still alive today, among the Seminoles and the Miccosukee. One thing we read about in documents from the 1600s is the Spanish constantly writing about Indigenous people who are running to the woods. They’re in these backwater areas where they try to survive, and eventually, they’re probably going to become part of the Seminoles and other groups like that. To me, I want to make this connection between the past and our history here.”