Archeology

Does every construction project in St. Augustine require archaeological review?

Yes, all building projects are reviewed for their potential to impact buried archaeological resources. Only if the project is located in an archaeology zone and involves ground-penetrating construction activities will further evaluation be required by the city's Planning and Building Department, Archaeology Division. The exception to this policy is recently annexed lands, which involve further evaluation by city staff prior to development activities.

How does the archaeologist decide whether an investigation is needed?
If a project occurs within an archaeological zone and ground-penetrating activities exceed more than 100 square feet in area by more than 3 inches deep, an investigation is required. You will be informed when you apply for a building permit with the city's Planning and Building Department whether these two criteria have been met.

How much does the Archaeological Permit fee cost?
For projects located in Zone I, the fee is 1.5% of the estimated construction cost. In Zone II, the rate is 1.25% and in Zone III, it is 1%. The minimum archaeology fee is $50 and the maximum is $25,000. The cost for other projects can be requested from Planning and Building. The zones can be found by clicking here.

Is the investigation going to hold up my construction?
Typically, a minimum of two to four weeks is necessary to investigate a single-family residence. Ideally, this can occur while the construction plans are going through the city's permitting process. The period for investigation is determined by a number of other factors as explained by the city archeologist..

Why does archaeology take so long?
Archaeology is meticulous work–often requiring the soil to be shaved away by shovels and trowels a few inches at a time to understand differences in soil composition and to define archaeological features. The archaeologist depends on volunteers to help speed up the work, but weather conditions, volunteer availability, the number and complexity of archaeological features unearthed, and information to be recorded, are variables difficult to control.

How do you know where to dig?
The location of an archaeological investigation is determined by ground-penetrating construction activities. The technique, be it survey, test units, or block excavation, focuses on the area that will be adversely impacted by the project. For single-family structures the foot print of the house, swimming pool, detached buildings (such as garages), and underground utility lines, is the focus of the investigation. For commercial developments, the foot print of the structure, water retention ponds, underground utilities, and outbuildings (such as trash compactors) are examined. Locations not subject to ground-penetrating construction are not examined.

What kinds of things are found at a dig site?
The types of items found at an excavation differ according to whether a property is within a historical or prehistoric zone designation. Generally, prehistoric deposits in St. Augustine consist of scattered shell debris, with some artifacts and animal bone. In some cases, soil stains representing the remains of houses and trash deposits have been documented. Locations with a historical occupation vary, depending on where development is occurring. If development is in the back of a lot within the colonial downtown district, features (such as wells, privies, trash pits, and ditches) associated with outdoor activities are common. If development occurs adjacent to an existing street, then remnants of building foundations, historic street surfaces, or historic bridges may be unearthed. No project ever uncovers the same material. Each site in St. Augustine is unique, which is why it is so important to document and preserve our archaeological heritage prior to construction.

Why is it important to be able to "read the soil"?
Archaeology, as a general rule, examines features and artifacts that have been buried in the ground or covered over. As such, it is essential to be able to recognize differences in soil type as seen in color, texture, and composition–otherwise known as stratigraphy–to interpret what has been dug and know when to stop. The one thing archaeology strives for is to excavate a site according to different zones of occupation or discrete areas of human activities. An understanding of soil stratigraphy is essential in any archaeological project.

What is a feature?
Archaeological features are recognizable soil stains or deposits, within a defined space, that are a product of human activity. Features are distinguishable from the surrounding soil matrix based on color and texture, as well as artifact type and quantity. Features are often associated with pits or trenches dug into the ground that are related to the construction of buildings or fortifications, disposal of garbage and human waste, and outdoor necessities (such as agricultural ditches, wells, and animal enclosures.) Features also can consist of simple soil stains (such as remnants of open campfires,) artifact concentrations that were part of a specific behavior (such as pottery kiln,) and buried structural elements (such as walls, roofs, and floors) that had been above ground.

What is an artifact?
Artifacts are those objects produced or used by humans in their daily activities. Artifacts can be very ornate or natural objects (such as shell) that were used for some purpose. Unless modified or used as a tool, ornament, etc., the remains of plants and animals are called ecofacts.

Are the artifacts valuable?
Yes and no. The artifacts are valuable keys to understanding how former residents of this frontier community lived, interacted, and were part of a global economic system. To the archaeologist, every artifact is priceless when it is properly recovered through archaeological methods. However, St. Augustine was a relatively poor city in comparison to other Spanish communities in the circum-Caribbean area and artifacts of monetary value are not usually found here.

Do you ever find gold?
Archaeology is essentially the study of trash or non-portable objects left by humans. As a rule, humans do not purposely discard valuable items unless conditions are warranted. Although many folktales mention caches of hidden treasure in St. Augustine, thirty-plus years of archaeology have not once uncovered any evidence of buried treasure.

Who owns the artifacts?
According to the City's Archaeological Preservation Ordinance, any artifacts uncovered are property of the landowner. The city reserves the right to curate the artifacts until they have been analyzed. While owning a piece of St. Augustine's heritage may be exciting, it should be noted that the artifacts are part of the city's cultural patrimony. Once removed from the City's archaeological collections, where they would be available for study, the artifacts would be lost to future generations researching St. Augustine unique past.

To go to the City of St. Augustine's Archeogical Web site, click here.

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