Tag Archives: archaeology

St. Augustine, Thanksgiving here first En Español

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Thanksgiving is coming.  A holiday enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country and perhaps my favorite secular holiday.  And yes, unlike in other places, Thanksgiving in the U.S. is secular although everyone of every faith celebrates in their own way.  A truly diverse holiday.

The first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 in Plymouth Plantation is usually what we think of when we think of the origins of the holiday, but is that true?  How Northern European centric are we being with that celebration?

A few weeks back I was in Gainesville, Florida, for a meeting and had the opportunity to go to St. Augustine with an archaeologist as a guide — at least for part of the day.  St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish crown in 1565 as a military installation, is still the oldest European-based settlement in the U.S.  When the Spanish landed, they immediately fortified an area, offloaded their ships and had a mass of thanksgiving and a feast.  The first Thanksgiving.  Probably, but not important really.  The settlement site was attacked, burned down a number of times and rebuilt, and while it moved from Spanish to English to Spanish to English hands, there were always people in the area.

What is important is that nearly everyone outside of Florida who is not an American history teacher of some kind thinks of the Plymouth colony, or Jamestown settlement.  The first European child born in what would become the U.S. was not Virginia Dare, but Martín de Argūelles, born in 1566.  St. Augustine was also an unusual place in that while it had slaves, they weren’t all from Africa and there were many African freemen as well.  Why? Because if you pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown and converted to Catholicism you could be a resident and protected.  Slavery, as ugly as it is, was of a different sort.  A Spanish slave could buy his or her freedom and many did.

Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, FL

Some of the early 17th century town still exists and has been conserved.  The 17th century fort, the oldest in the continental U.S., still stands on the water’s edge facing the bay.  The chapel, living areas and the “necessary” are still there.

These men and women, whether Spanish soldiers, their wives, native Americans from the Saturiwa or Africans undoubtedly spoke Spanish as their common language.  They attended church together, and while excluding other faiths, they embraced other differences.

It is only because England won the wars against Spain and France and Florida was a prize passed back and forth that St. Augustine is not what we look to at Thanksgiving.  I suppose it is a case of to the victors go not only the spoils but the place in history.

Archaeologically, we know a lot about the St. Augustine settlement and its original location in what is now Fountain of Youth Park.  A new exhibit, “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” curated by Kathleen Deagan of the University of Florida at the Florida Museum of Natural History, opened last week and we had a preview at Old Colony House in St. Augustine, where the exhibit will remain until 2016.  Eventually, this exhibit will travel across the country, bringing the Spanish origins of many of our citizens to light.

Aloha Mahalo

Yes, I’m in Hawaii.  No I’m not really on vacation.  I’m attending a Society for American Archaeology meeting.  Penn State is well represented at this meeting by faculty, students and former students who are now faculty at other universities.

Each year, sometime during the meeting, there is a Penn State gathering.  There’s usually a theme.  The year after Bill Sanders died, film footage of him in Mexico and Central America formed the backdrop of the party.

This year is another occasion, or rather two. Dean Snow, professor of anthropology and former head of the department is really retiring after teaching part time for a while.  In conjunction with his retirement, he and his wife are setting up the Snow Award in Archaeology to honor and recognize outstanding academic achievement by an undergraduate student whose studies are focused in archaeological science in the College of the Liberal Arts.  They have put aside $10,000 to be matched by donations from others.  Twenty thousand dollars are needed to establish a fund for student support.

I received an M.A. and a Ph.D. from the department and Dean Snow was on my dissertation committee.  I’ll undoubtedly donate in his honor.  But I was thinking, he isn’t the first faculty member to donate money to his department on retirement.  Apparently many of our faculty think enough of our students and the university to donate upon retirement or at some other time.

The Penn State Anthropology party at this meeting is always fun.  I get to see people I went to school with and to catch up a little.  I found out one of my classmates made tenure.  Another moved to South Carolina.  Many people who are usually here did not come because of the cost, and those that do come are obviously well employed in the field, so it isn’t a perfect indicator of how the department is doing.  However, I’m always impressed by what these former students are doing now and how Penn State influenced their research and their choice of jobs.

This year I also spent part of the party time interviewing a professor because just that morning I’d received a notice that he was publishing a paper in 5 days.  I sent him an e-mail only to find out he was at the conference.  So I took the time to do the interview.

I don’t usually do interviews in the middle of a party, but we sat down at the dining room table and began to chat.  I do always have a reporter’s notebook in my purse.  He is an environmental archaeologist and doing some really interesting things.

Douglas Kennett was at the University of Oregon before he joined Penn State a short while ago.  During that time he was looking into dates of Maya sites and made arrangements with the University of Pennsylvania to sample a door lintel they had in their museum.  Then he moved here as a full professor and is now publishing on that work out of the Pennsylvania State University.  So as he told me, it is a Pennsylvania story.

But it is really about the Maya city of Tikal, sapodilla trees, radiocarbon 14 dating and linking the Long Count calendar to the European calendar.

Ambitious, but truly fascinating and likely to provide hints not only of what the Maya faced climate wise, but what we may face in the future.

Under the Sea: Mermaid Excluded

The city of Akko is on a peninsula surrounded by water.  Situated at the northern most point of greater Haifa Harbor, the Mediterranean surrounds the Old and New cities.

Maritime endeavors have always been important to the inhabitants of Akko, which was a Phoenician city during the Iron Age, and we all learned in grade school, or should have, that the Phoenicians were the sailors and traders of the Mediterranean Sea.

Interestingly, I’m surrounded by archaeologists who are totally interested in the Iron Age and they all agree, very little is actually known about the Phoenicians.  Looking at the Phoenicians is one of the objectives of the Total Archaeology @ Tel Akko project and while digging on the tel can tell us how they lived on land, exploring under the harbor might provide a clue as to how they lived on water.

Akko harbor is certainly known from Crusader history and during the Hellenistic period, the city was renamed Ptolomais and the harbor was very important.  Alexander the Great entered through Ptolomais on his way further east.

Hence the mermaid reference.  Supposedly, there is a female mermaid-like entity that appears near the Tower of Flies and asks, “Has he returned yet.”  She is supposedly asking after Alexander.

And the Tower of Flies, that too has a story.  When the Crusaders came to Akko or St. Jean d’ Acre, they thought they had reached Ekron, where one of the major deities was Ba’al Zevuv – Lord of the Flies (I kid you not).  Since the tower already existed and apparently garbage was dumped there frequently, the Crusaders named it the Tower of Flies.

But to the harbor. Centuries of sediment deposition from the small river that flows into the Mediterranean near Akko and natural ocean processes have undoubtedly changed the shoreline, covered evidence and filled in any number of harbor manifestations.  The only way to find the Phoenician harbor is to dig — underwater.

Total Archaeology@Tel Akko includes an underwater archaeology component and while they haven’t yet found the Phoenician harbor, they are bringing up some interesting results.

Not Panning for Gold

A’ndrea wet screening dirt for iron.
Credit: Jill Bierly

I was wet screening some dirt from the probable metals working area the other day, sitting under a shade near the path that winds up and around Napoleon Hill (Tel Akko) when two small boys, 8 or 9 I’d guess, walked by.  They asked me in Hebrew if I was looking for gold.  I said no, iron.  They gave me the strangest look, stopped for a second, and then began walking on. As they got about 6 feet in front of me they turned and said, you are looking for gold.  And they walked off.

Gold and silver, those are the precious metals that everyone thinks of when they think of prospecting or looking for ores and such.  But, for archaeologists in most places, the use of copper and then iron ores for metalworking is far more important.  Copper is the only metal beside gold and silver that occurs in its native form on Earth.  Just as one can find gold nuggets, copper nuggets – not as shiny bright and not as valuable – are also found.  Native copper is the only indication of metal working of any kind in North America in pre-contact times.  The nuggets were hammered into tiny bells or other ornaments, but Native Americans never smelted copper or any other metal.

In the Middle East, however, copper, bronze and eventually iron were smelted and worked.  Last year at Tel Akko, during the excavation by the Penn State and University of Haifa, Tel Akko project, excavations revealed a potential metal working area.  This year, a new area, next to the original was excavated and examined by students and a researcher from the Weizmann Institute.

Remember Wooly Willie or other metal filings games where you move the iron with a magnet to create hair, beards, etc.?  Run a magnet through the dirt in these two areas and the magnet looks like Wooly Willie with a full beard.  The number of hammerscales – tiny pieces of iron that fall off when hammering iron into shape – is truly amazing.  The area also yielded pounds of iron slag.  In other areas of the Tel copper slag appeared as well.

The first or second day of the dig, I found, in situ – in the ground in the original location – part of an iron blade.  Yes, I was digging in the same location with all the hammerscales.  Today, one of the last days of digging, someone found an iron arrowhead that is probably late Iron Age early Persian.

Some say that Akko was famous for metalworking.  Certainly indications from this year’s excavations suggest that some ironworking went on in the Persian period, if not earlier.

Mole in the Hole

We have a mole in our unit.  Well, we think it’s a mole.  It could be any other type of burrowing rodent, but it’s probably a mole.  We’ve known our unit was inhabited since the day after we began it; because we arrived to a neat little hill of dirt on the floor and we know that we swept everything clean the day before.

I can’t imagine what he, or she, thinks is going on.  Each day we dig a little deeper and expose one or more of the mole holes.  Most are found when we remove a rock and there is suddenly a hole in the ground.

One day last week, we dug into the mole’s nest.  Well, we didn’t dig into it initially, someone walked across it and the area collapsed about an inch and there was all this stuff — straw, plastic, seed, weird insects and grass.  Not much of a home to me, but I’m sure to the mole it was everything necessary.  So of course we dug it out and removed it.  Frankly, it was nasty.

We didn’t see any indication of the critter for a number of days and then a few days ago we left the unit in pristine shape and went to breakfast.  We eat breakfast on the tel, so we weren’t really that far away.  About a half hour later, we came back to a real skunkworks.  There were four little mounds of dirt in various parts of the unit.  As we watched, we saw little paws and perhaps a nose pushing dirt out of a hole in the middle of the unit onto a pile of dirt.  We just stood there.  It seemed a shame to disturb such industry, but we needed to get back in and dig some more.  So we cleaned up the mess and dug on.

We have not been back to the site since this happened on Friday.   Monday we will return and I have a feeling, we will see little piles of dirt in the unit.  This mole is persistent if nothing else.

mole hill