On the outskirts of Big Talbot Island, on an unmarked trail, Andrew Jones crouched in about a four-foot dirt hole and examined a singular, intact white whelk shell.
Jones, a University of North Florida archaeology student, slowly slid his masonry trowel under the shell. He was careful not to disturb it, but he was even more cautious not to hit the wall it sat in.
Soon, the shell would be removed and stored for further inspection. Until then, it would be photographed and documented. Its location on the trail, its placement in the ground, its shape and size — all would be noted.
“In a way, we are destroying this archaeological site, so we have to do it in a really systematic way. When we go back to the lab, we can basically reconstruct what we’ve excavated,” said Keith Ashley, UNF coordinator of archaeological research. “People who loot don’t do that. They just get their loot and go, but for us, that’s the information we can glean.”
Located on one of Northeast Florida’s sea islands, Big Talbot Island State Park is a natural preserve suitable for nature study, bird-watching and exploring the area’s diverse habitats.
In the near future, it will also be a place to learn about the Native Americans who were Florida’s original inhabitants. The Florida State Park Service wants to build a trail leading visitors directly to a shell ring and burial mound complex, which will become part of an exhibit on the Timucuan Indians.
Before the trail can be created, however, Florida State Parks staff want to make sure nothing will be destroyed in the process, said Allison Conboy, park services specialist at Big Talbot Island.
That’s where the UNF archaeology class comes in.
About a 1,000 years ago, Timucuan Indians lived on the southern part of Big Talbot Island and now students are digging through what remains of their garbage, Ashley said. They’ve found carved bone, arrowhead-shaped tools, broken pieces of pottery and an endless supply of shucked oyster shells.
The site has been examined by Ashley several times over the last two decades to determine exactly where the students would start shoveling. In 1999 and 2000, preliminary work uncovered the area through a variety of “shovel tests,” Ashley said. Since then, they’ve come back a couple times to explore larger sections.
Ashley hopes to discover how the area relates to the large village center about 300 yards north of their dig site.
Were there households or was the spot just where the Native Americans ventured to get their oysters. Judging by the items found, neither possibility would be surprising.
“These people were truly people of the marsh,” Ashley said, noting the shells and the abundance of fish bones.
For the students, however, the excitement lies in being able to experience firsthand the skills they’ve been reading out of books. Many of them are anthropology or archaeology majors. They learn how to tell the difference between wood and animal bone. They learn the careful techniques needed to extract artifacts from the ground and then they learn how to meticulously document the findings.
And Ashley is quite thorough.
“Some people would call us anal, but we like to use the word meticulous,” Ashley said. “We have to be.”
He requires the students photograph the walls of each site and they must also draw the various layers in the dirt. Sometimes, Ashley said, details are lost in the flat surface of a photograph. The drawing helps capture what might be missing.
The excitement comes, he added, in being the first person to touch an object in the last thousand years.
“This is probably the coolest summer I’ve had in my life,” said Tianna DiSalvo, who stood overlooking Jones as he scraped dirt from the whelk shell.
Nearby, Warner Flower agreed.
“Dr. Ashley’s passion for teaching helps engage me as a student, but he also makes it so much more. We are just digging in the ground, we are trying to preserve past cultures. … But I like to dig, so.” Flower smiled at his own joke.
The feeling seemed to be pretty common.
Ashlee Larramore, who wants to become an archaeologist, has a fondness for learning about history.
“I think it’s really interesting to be able to dig up history and learn what people were doing a thousand years ago. We are able to then relate that to everything else. Plus, I think digging in the dirt in the woods is better than a desk job.”
According to Ashley, the class wouldn’t happen without UNF’s partnership with the Florida State Park Service. The university must acquire permission from the state before pursuing a dig. The park service also asked UNF students to comb the nearby shorelines for archaeological sites. The shorelines along Big Talbot Island are eroding quickly and the park service wanted help documenting any sites that may soon be lost.
“Not only is this training another generation of scientists and people who are going to advocate for the parks, but it saves us a lot of time,” Conboy said. “Whatever we can get from them is only going to help enrich the story we can tell people about the Timucuan Indians.”