The Ximenez-Fatio House Museum in St. Augustine has stood on the same plot of land off of Aviles Street since 1798. Over its long and storied history as a private residence and business, and then finally as a boarding house, the structure has played host to countless local guests and travelers. For those with the expertise and inclination to look, the ground around the museum holds remnants of the past, and offers a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of these long-dead travellers, employees and dwellers whose lives are indelibly etched into the dirt.
The northeast corner of the property is the site of a publicly accessible excavation, offering a behind-the-scenes look at the archaeological process to tour groups and curious individuals. The team in charge of this current dig is headed up by Carl Halbirt, St. Augustine’s city archaeologist, along with a group of local students and volunteers working with the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) under the direction of FPAN’s Northeast Regional Director, Sarah Miller. They’re hopeful that they’ll uncover artifacts from as far back as the late 1500s–predating the construction of the Ximenez-Fatio House.
“We broke ground the first week of February. The mayor did the first shovel-toss!” said Miller.
The stakes for this dig are high, but the team is confident. “It’s kind of a rescue archaeology. We do this everywhere in the city,” said Mischa Johns, archaeological assistant. To Sarah Miller and the other archaeologists on-site, the goal is “Preservation by documentation.”
The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America has owned and overseen the Ximenez-Fatio House Museum since 1939. When they recently decided to put a garden area into the corner of the property, it set off St. Augustine’s Archaeology Ordinance. “The ordinance was established in 1987, and the intent was never to stop construction, but to document the types of archaeological deposits that are present in that area that will be developed, as well as understand how development will be impacting those deposits,” said Halbirt. Artifacts and detailed notes will be saved from the site, but once the dig concludes, much of the raw material will have been destroyed by the very process of digging.
Archaeology isn’t all about finding artifacts. In fact, even the most impressive find means little without proper context. “Archaeologists actually look for different colored soil layers. People think we’re looking for artifacts, but we’re actually looking for soil colors,” said Johns. This rigorous examination of the soil for clues is known as stratigraphy, and it can offer important hints about why certain artifacts are found in one area over another. Lines in the soil at the Ximenez-Fatio dig site show evidence of coal and ash accumulation, as well as the ghostly outline of what was once a tabby floor.
All of the hard work being done on this latest dig serves to “gather information that can be used for interpreting St. Augustine’s history,” according to Halbirt.
Findings from this dig will help contribute to a body of work spanning approximately 720 other excavation sites in America’s oldest city, because the driving passion for these professionals who dance the boundary between hard science and the humanities is a need to uncover and explain the story of the human race. “History tends to tell you about the generals and kings, or where the armies went,” said Johns. “Archaeology tells you: What did the armies eat? How did they live? Where did they stay, and what did they do?”
The dig is located at 20 Aviles Street in St. Augustine, and will be open to the general public until its conclusion on March 14. Click here for more information.