by Sarah Bennett
Under the direction of Kathy Deagan and Gifford Waters from the University of Florida, a crew of seven archaeologists returned to St. Augustine this spring to excavate at the Fountain of Youth (FOY) and Mission Nombre de Dios. 2014 excavations at FOY focused on locating and, with archaeological providence, delineating a series of wall trenches potentially related to the 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Avilés encampment. Previous field seasons yielded wall trenches running primarily east-west; however, a portion of the wall appeared to turn northward and we moved to an area of FOY not yet studied by Dr. Deagan.
In 2011, Gifford Waters and a crew from UF unearthed coquina and tabby foundations at Mission Nombre de Dios. The architectural remains, paired with historical documentation, suggested that they found the Mission church built in 1677. Returning three years later, we worked toward exposing the architectural features—the wall foundations, partition walls, and a tabby floor—before excavating areas within or outside of the possible church.
The Places and the Public
Although no overt public archaeology component existed during field work, the crew anticipated and encouraged public interaction. Diverse in backgrounds, each crew member possessed formal training or experience in public archaeology (thanks, NAI Certified Interpretive Guide program and the Florida Public Archaeology Network NERC!) or informal, yet sustaining, forms of public education and interpretation. These experiences proved invaluable as work at both sites inevitably led to constant (and utterly wonderful) interaction with the public.
St. Augustine draws about 2 million visitors annually. What are two tourist destinations in the city? FOY and the Mission! FOY, a living history park, celebrates the legacy of Juan Ponce de Leon as well as the Pedro Menéndez Spanish encampment and features a variety of exhibits and points of interest throughout the 15 waterfront acres. Included amidst the Planetarium, peacocks, atlatl practices, reenactments, and other historical experiences is the archaeology of the park. Tourist interest in visiting the Fountain of Youth due to its archaeological heritage is debatable; however, it is certain that FOY incorporates archaeological excavations and interpretation at the site, particularly in the form of interpretive signage and those announcing archaeology in action!, in addition to outlines in an open field. These outlines represent the walls of various structures associated with the 1565 Menéndez encampment. Although one of many historical and educational components at FOY, archaeology fuels the tourist experience.
Mission Nombre de Dios commemorates the first Mass and introduction of Christianity in Florida as well as the Franciscan mission of Nombre de Dios (1587-1763) — the first and longest-lived Spanish mission. Visitors to the grounds include locals and tourists. Like FOY, the Mission rests next to the water, encouraging serene reflections and contemplations amidst the Great Cross, the Rustic Altar, the Our Lady of La Leche Shrine and Chapel, and other points of interest. Among the statues and crosses, churches, chapels, and gravestones is information about missions in La Florida and signs interpreting previous archaeological work conducted by UF. Though acknowledged on signs, visitors to the site rarely realize the magnitude of what lies beneath their soles. The archaeologists’ presence, along with the culmination of five weeks of excavating trenches, drew considerable attention.
Public archaeology served as a critical component of the 2014 field season because of the places we worked and the nature of St. Augustine. Interacting with tourists and the general public has always served as a central component of archaeology in the city. During the era of UF field schools at these sites, being “public” was a rotating, assigned task. Similarly, public archaeology (often incidental!) comprises a significant, and enduring, portion of the City of St. Augustine Archaeology Program.
Tourists did not expect to encounter archaeology during our 2014 field season. Perhaps signage at FOY and the Mission increased curiosity and prompted questions. Four months of public interaction, however, provided me with many (mental) notes about public archaeology in tourism settings. More specifically, I noticed ways that archaeologists can prepare for those people “stumbling upon” archaeology (and us).
Generally, people seem innately curios about archaeology, though these same people aren’t necessarily certain that we are archaeologists. Curiosity abounds, but often shyness prevails! Greet onlookers, ask them if they have questions, and start the conversation.
Contact is essential! Archaeologists are the bridge, the link, the connection between concepts of what archaeology is, how it works, and who we are and a tangible experience. Without us, the public possesses a grossly reduced relationship to the past. Chatting with people enables them to connect with the past (and/in the present), to develop their own experiences and understandings, and to imbue the site, the artifacts, the current interpretation with their own thoughts and words. As an added bonus for archaeologists: its’ entirely probable that we will learn something about the site, the artifacts, interpretation, or our audiences in conversation.
Other people, volunteers, teachers, tour guides, should absolutely be part of an archaeologists’ tool kit. There is danger in evading public archaeology as avoidance permits the perpetuation of misinformation or no information. Numerous times during the season, tour guides checked in with the crew to ask what we were doing and what we were finding. In turn, the guides shared the information with their groups. Without these conversations, the field season would likely have been filled with more assumptions rather than learning.
No tool kit is complete without volunteers. Balancing excavation and interaction with the public is not easy. Answering questions and offering explanations is essential. Digging is too! Toni Wallace and Marsha Chance served as ambassadors to the public regularly. The public’s reaction was always noticeable. Chats with the crew were often short and with small groups. When Toni and Marsha could talk, the crowds amassed to listen, see, and ask questions.
While working at FOY, my constant unit partner, David Underwood, and I compiled a list of the Top 5 Questions people asked. Similar variations also occurred at the Mission. These questions included (most frequent listed first):
- Are you digging for graves?
- How did you decide to dig here?
- What are you finding?
- How deep do you dig?
- Are you students? Are you paid? What’s your affiliation?
Naturally, it can be frustrating to answer the same questions repeatedly. The nature of the question can also add to the frustration. Alternatively, public archaeologists can consider what these types of questions indicate about the public’s basic archaeological knowledge and what components of field work drive curiosity or confusion. Answering questions serves as the most rapid way to engage AND explicate archaeology, from the field, to the lab, to the office, to universities, to museums, to organizations, from large to small, from local to international.
Finally, encourage tourists to continue discover the archaeological heritage of the area by directing them to other interpreted sites. Many people also wondered about archaeology in their own city or state. Familiarity with public archaeology programs and volunteer organizations throughout the nation becomes invaluable knowledge as we provide tourists with avenues for archaeological exploration and involvement at home.
In your experience, what are effective means of engaging the public? What do your audiences hope to glean from conversation? Are incidental, “stumbling upon” interactions in archaeological settings different from those that occur intentionally?