Since the ruins of the Santa
Catalina de Guale Spanish mission on St. Catherines Island were discovered in the 1980s, countless artifcats have been unearthed
In the early 1980s American Museum of Natural History archeologist David Hurst-Thomas found the ruins of the Spanish mission, Santa Catalina de Guale, on the western side of St. Catherines Island.
Unearthing the mission provided evidence the Spaniards had made it to the New World centuries before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. It also provided a glimpse of the Guale Indian tribe believed to be among the first settlers on the coastal island since it formed roughly 5,000 years ago.
On May 15, amid torrential rain, the Courier got to tour St. Catherines Island, including a visit to the mission site led by Anna Semon, lab director for the North American Archeology Division of Anthropology for the AMNH. She is also the excavation crew chief for the archeological projects on the island.
"There was a chain of Spanish missions that went up the Atlantic Coast from St. Augustine to Santa Helena," Semon said, pointing to a map. "There was another group that went across St. Augustine to Tallahassee and points west and they created this whole chain."
Semon said there are historic maps that indicate a church on the island. She said several other archeological groups had searched for the mission.
"But they never found it because the maps were incorrect as far as the location," she said. "There were historic records and documents in various archives suggesting that there was a mission somewhere around here. But they didn’t say where."
Semon said they found documents written by James Oglethorpe documenting his account of landing on St. Catherines in the mid 1700s and seeing the ruins.
"But they were falling apart at that time," she said. "We know that there were two constructions of the mission here and each one was burned. One of them was around 1580. There was a Guale rebellion and they burned everything. Then about 20 years later they rebuilt the church."
She said the second structure also burned and vegetation had covered the location over the years.
Then, 30 years ago, Hurst-Thomas and a group of researchers surveyed parts of the island looking for the site.
"What they did was survey the area with various tests to locate the burned area of the structures," she said. "Once they located the burned areas they started to open up larger block excavations."
Semon said Hurst-Thomas told her he drove over the mission as they cleared paths to other suspected sites.
"He drove over the site hundreds of times and didn’t even know it," she said. "The excavation started in the early 1980s and lasted several years."
She said Hurst-Thomas asked the Catholic Church for permission to excavate. Semon said the church agreed because they believed friars were martyred during one of the Guale revolts. Plus the church wanted to learn more about the mission.
"When we found the Spanish mission the Catholic Church in Savannah was thrilled because we found proof that the Catholic Church was here before Oglethorpe," Hurst-Thomas said.
He is now curator of the North American Archeology Division of Anthropology for the AMNH.
Later church officials consecrated the mission.
"It’s an actual church and the oldest church in the U.S.," Semon said.
She said the excavations uncovered the church, convento and friary. She said digging went on 24 hours a day, seven days a week for years because researchers feared looters might learn of the site.
There were no structures left and Semon explained how the researchers thought the buildings had collapsed.
"What they found is that once everything burned, one side of the wall fell in toward the church and the other wall fell out toward the plaza," she said. "When they excavated they found everything that was on the wall face down."
Among the artifacts discovered within the church area were three Guale masks.
"We believe that they were attached to the wall and when the wall caved in these fell face down," Semon said. "These are the only representation that we have of what they looked like. It’s believed that these were in the stations of the crosses within the church."
Other structures associated with the mission were also uncovered, including the kitchen, living quarters and two wells. One being a secular well the other a sacred well.
"They excavated them and in the secular well they found wood planks and ceramic vessels as well as tons of botanicals," she said.
One of the pots in the well was not only intact, but even painted.
"We don’t really find anything that has this dark type of paint applied to the ceramic. Usually it’s just paddle marked or paddle stamped," she said. "So it was really neat to find this type of vessel and we are still trying to do analysis on it to see what was within it and how it was utilized."
The most significant discovery was the human remains of 400 people and a collection of 70,000 glass beads buried under the church.
"We had a bio-archeologist be able to identify at least 400 individuals," Semon said. "Some pits were better preserved than others. Some were coffin burials but primarily there were just pits and so various parts were found."
Lorann S.A. Pendleton, director of the Nels Nelson North American Archaeology Laboratory at AMNH said the practice of burying people under a church was outlawed in the 14th or 15th century, but said it was still common practice in the New World.
Pendleton said it seemed unusual to see that many commoners buried under a church, leading the group to theorize the 400 buried under the mission were people of status.
"One of the reasons I think that is because many of the burials were that of children and they were buried with lots of beads," she said. "A child can’t earn that much status in a short lifetime. They were too young, 2 or 3 years old. So they obviously were very important people when they were born. We know a lot about the Guale social structure just by how they were buried."
Pendleton and archeologists Elliot Blair and the late Peter Francis Jr., co-wrote "The Beads of St. Catherines Island" for the AMNH, detailing the collection of beads.
"The beads dated from 5,000 years ago until Spanish contact around the 1500s," Pendleton said. "We found amber from the Baltic, carnelian from India some of the beads from China and most of the beads came from Italy, from Murano, where they make lots and lots of glass beads. You can still buy them there today."
A lot of them also came from France and Pendleton said they found the first evidence of Spanish-style beads in the New World.
"They are made in a certain way and are very Moorish so we think they came from Spain," she said. "The bulk of the beads found were in the cemetery which was underneath the floor of the church. The Indians were buried with them. They had long ago learned they could take it with them when they went. So they followed the pre-historic practice of being buried with lots of grave goods."
Pendleton said they’ve found shell beads across the island and some of the glass beads were found in what was the convento, where the priests lived.
"They were probably giving them to the Guale Indians who they were trying to convert to Catholicism," she explained.
"It’s very exciting to be a part of this sort of one-of-a-kind collection and that it is completely different than anything else that has been found in Spanish Florida," Blair added.
Everything found was covered again to preserve the integrity of the site. Even the human remains are back where they were found.
To mark the location St. Catherines Island Foundation Director Royce Hayes planted palm trees in the spots researchers believe are where the church’s major post beams stood. Benches mark the inside of the church.
Semon said Hurst-Thomas calls this type of archeology in the ground curation.
"For future analysis," she explained. "We can come back to it with better techniques and understand what is going on."