‘They’re really experiencing archaeology:’ UNF students excavate at lost Indigenous town

JACKSONVILLE, Fla — Archaeology students from the University of North Florida have been spending their weeks discovering new findings at a lost indigenous town at Big Talbot Island State Park.

The location is now supported by overwhelming evidence to be the native Mocama village of Sarabay.

Through the six-week summer course in Archaeological Field Methods, the students have the chance to get out of the classroom and into some hands-on experience in the field.

This dig is part of the UNF Archaeology Lab’s ongoing Mocama Archaeological Project that focuses on the Timucua-speaking Mocama people who lived along the Atlantic coast of northern Florida at the time of European arrival in 1562.

While the school says the actual whereabouts of most of these villages have gone undetected for nearly 450 years, previous testing by the UNF Archaeology Lab has identified the archaeological location of the village of Sarabay at the Armellino site on Big Talbot Island.

The students are led by Dr. Keith Ashley, the UNF Archaeology Lab director.

“They’re doing all the digging,” Ashley said. “They’re doing the recording. They’re learning all that comes with the craft of archaeology.”

The team first discovered artifacts and other items that confirmed the discovery in 2020 but now they’ve been led to even more.

“We’re working on an archaeological site that dates to 450 to 500 years ago,” Ashley said. “The State Park is protecting this site. We’ve come out the last three summers, and we’ll be out one more summer next year. So, it’s a four-year project.

Large amounts of Indigenous pottery have been found as also bones and shell tools.

Faith Bean is a senior at UNF.

“I feel like it’s so much different coming out here and being part of the actual process of learning how to excavate,” Bean said. “It’s such a detailed process, and hands-on is the best way to learn.”

Here’s one job she says she can see in her future.

“I’m thinking a forensic anthropologist,” Bean said. “I’m going to be pursuing a master’s program probably in that field.”

Dr. Ashley explained what draws many students to the course.

“A lot of students are just really interested in the past or students are interested in our indigenous history,” Ashley said. “Right now, we’re going through the bicentennial. That’s happening. If you want to really think about human history, that bicentennial is 1.4 percent of the human history of this area. So 97 percent of the human history of Northeast Florida is an indigenous history.”

Next year will be the final summer digging for the project.

“A lot of students have had classes -- formal classes in archaeology, so they know what it’s like kind of in the abstract reading it in a book,” Ashley said. “When you actually come out here, it is really different. They’re really experiencing archaeology.”

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