Amateur archaeologist finds first European settlement in Florida

Archaeologists are working against time on a sprawling Indian mound and village site in Florida to prove that the first settlement of europeans and Indians lived here years before the founding of the nation's oldest city, ST. Augustine, in 1565.

The 15-foot-high, 160-foot-long mound, in which some 130 individual burials and a variety of early spanish and Indian artifacts have already been uncovered, is scheduled for private development as a recreational vehicle (RV) park.

Homer Cato, an amateur archaeologist who lives in the tiny eastern coastal hamlet of Micco, in which the site is situated, uncovered historic accounts of such a village by painstaking research in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain, over the last decade. He confirmed the location, he said, by comparing ancient maps of the site with modern topographical records and by extensive digging into the mound. The digging results, which have been confirmed by state-employed archaeologists in Florida's Department of History and Archives, show the presence of Spanish jewelry, a silver conquistador's horse bell, and Spanish coins.

But the most apparent evidence in support of Mr. Cato's claim is the existence of a 21-by- 16-foot conch shell cross on the top of the mound. The crucifixion symbol denotes a Christian burial and makes the site a rarity among those left by the normally pagan pre- historic Indians.

Mr. Cato says the site contains the remains of Spanish shipwreck survivors who were rescued by the often-hostile Ayz tribe, which ranged along this central region of the state's east coast. They were taken into the tribe, and after no subsequent rescue from other ships was forthcoming, they married and had children with the Indian women. When they died, they were given Christian burials.

Although state archaeologist Calvin Jones says history does report of such activities, it is still too early to make a proper evaluation of the site. But, he adds, Mr. Cato does have a good record of success in making other historical connections with current archaeological sites. "It will take months to properly evaluate this site," Mr. Jones says. "Unfortunately, by the time we know one way or the other, the whole thing will probably be developed. It will be a real tragedy."

Even if the European remains are never found, the village itself should be properly excavated and preserved, because it represents the largest remaining Indian site on the east coast of Florida, and one of the few remaining in the state that have not already been destroyed by development or artifact hunters. "At one time, we recorded the location of over 14,000 [Indian] sites around the state," Mr. Jones says. "And I estimate that we're losing from 1 to 2 percent a year. There's probably four or five being bulldozed today."

The Ayz were one of about 10 prehistoric Indian tribes that had staked out Florida's lush peninsula before the Columbian period in 1492. History indicates that the Ayz were generally hunters and gatherers who sometimes indulged in ceremonial headhunting. When early Spanish explorers began using the prevailing current off the eastern central coast of the state to return to Europe in the 1540s, treasure-laden galleons often blundered ashore in Ayz territory during storms and other mishaps. As a result, the Ayz, who only ranged southward from Cape Canaveral some 75 miles, became the first treasure salvors in the New World.

Less than two centuries after Columbus first recorded sight of the North American Continent, the last Ayz fell victim to European-carried disease and slavery. Prehistory accounts, then, must come from the careful excavation of remaining sites, Mr. Jones says.

Before Mr. Cato stepped in with his documentation, the landowners had planned to develop the area immediately. They subsequently hired a private archaeological firm to do a 30-day site evaluation of the village. "It would take at least six months to even finish the dig," David Swindell, the senior site archaeologist, explains. "Archaeology is a two- part science, split between field work and laboratory analysis, and it relies heavily on other sciences, such as physics, anthropology, chemistry, and geology," he says.

Because of the limited budget, Mr. Swindell and Dale Benton, his assistant, rely on a daily work force of amateur diggers from local volunteer groups. Their work, which takes place under a cover of sabal palms and Spanish moss in a junglelike tropical atmosphere, is exacting.

Thin layers of the sandy mound are scraped aside with the edge of a shovel. When an artifact or a burial is found, the diggers get on their hands and knees to scrape the dirt away with trowels, brushes, and dental picks. A wooden- framed grid is then placed over the find, and transit-measured depths and location are then taken with a plumb bob hung through the grid. A sketch or photo is made of each find, and the material is then transferred to a plastic bag marked with necessary location information.

"By its nature, archaeology is a destructive science," Mr. Swindell admits. "The records should be so complete that we could put everything back where it came from. If we don't take our record-keeping seriously, we're no different from the people who run the bulldozers."

"I look on sites like this as an endangered animal," Mr. Swindell says. "Once they're gone, they just can't be replaced."

Although most professionals involved in the dig admit that this site should be preserved since it is of "National Registry quality," there are no state laws here affecting historic finds on private property. "If society can afford archaeologists at all," says Mr. Jones, "it should be able to afford the protection or preservation of sites like this."

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