Archaeology Abuzz: Digging St. Augustine’s Tovar House

Architecture. Archaeology. Atypical. Air conditioned. Awesome.

These are by no means the only words I associate with the dig at the Tovar House in downtown St. Augustine. That list of 5 words, however, offers the perfect peek into this project.

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Our outdoor office for the first week and a half. The Tovar House, with its red shutters, rests on the right side of the picture.

The Day of Archaeology fell on the last day of the Tovar House dig, which is partially why my post appeared two days later. Excavation projects are fun and enlightening, but these projects also tax the brain and the body. Like any other profession, this girl needed time to recover.

Architecture guided the initial research questions asked about the Tovar House. Maps created in the 1764 and 1788 suggest that the house existed, but offered no date for its construction. Dr. Herschel Shepard, an architectural historian, recently spent hours upon hours studying, assessing, and recording the house. His examination provided hypotheses about the house, as well as research questions. Enter the archaeologists! By digging on the exterior of the house, and by exposing the foundation, Dr. Kathy Deagan and the archaeology team aimed to determine when the house was built and to see when/if/how the Spanish and/or British modified the house.

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The head honchos, from left to right: Dr. Susan Parker, St. Augustine Historical Society; Dr. Kathy Deagan, Florida Museum of Natural History; Dr. Herschel Shepard, University of Florida

Architecture. Archaeology. Atypical. Rarely do purely architectural questions guide archaeological investigation.

A team of three spent 15 days in the field. We dug two units, screened layers of dirt, took 22 photos, drew 12 maps, mapped 7 profiles, filled three Banker’s Boxes with artifacts and architectural samples, and started to analyze these materials.

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Greg Smith spraying the trash-stuffed shell footer before taking the official photo.

Our second unit led us into the air conditioning. This is also atypical in archaeology. Often, we endure the extreme of weather — heat, cold, rain, wind. The St. Augustine Historical Society, however, manages and maintains the Tovar House. Fortunately for the team of three, this meant that our indoor dig was also an air conditioned dig. This, along with the information we unearthed and interpreted, was awesome.

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Indoor archaeology, a dream come true!

On the last day of the project, Greg and I finished our last profiles. The wall profiles reveal things about the dirt that archaeologists cannot necessarily see while digging in levels. (There’s a horizonal-versus-vertical dynamic there). By flattening the unit walls, we recognized one new feature and could better envision how the Spanish and/or British built, and built onto, the Tovar House.

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To the west you could walk through a doorway, above a shell footer, and two posts that possibly predate the house.

By day’s end, we completed profile maps and other paperwork that described the soil, the way we excavated the soil, which areas of the soil are associated with which artifacts, photographs, and maps. Profiles and paperwork were capped off with a celebratory, congratulatory you-completed-this-project pizza party! An architectural historian and archaeologists — perhaps the atypical team — enjoying pizza in air conditioning. It was awesome.