When Hurricane Matthew roared through St. Augustine, Florida, in October 2016, many of the town’s historic buildings were damaged. But it wasn’t until a building owner decided to tear up a flooded floor to mitigate water damage that an historic discovery was made—what may be the skeletons of the earliest European colonists in the United States.
The city of St. Augustine was founded by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had sailed from Spain and spotted land in what is now Florida on August 28, 1565. Menéndez became the first governor of Florida, and St. Augustine was its capital for two centuries. Although Pensacola, Florida, is the oldest multiyear European settlement, founded by Tristán de Luna in 1559, St. Augustine, located in the northeast part of the state, wins the title for being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the contiguous U.S.
Given the age of the city, St. Augustine’s archaeological team has worked for decades to shed light on various phases of occupation. In 1572, the town was relocated from a barrier island onto the mainland, following difficulties defending it from the Timucua Indians. Shortly after this move, the first parish churches were established: Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and, slightly earlier, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, the parish church of St. Augustine.
The sites of both churches, which were in use between the 16th and 18th centuries, have seen archaeological excavations over the years, including the discovery of numerous burials. La Soledad produced evidence of European, African, and Native American individuals buried in Spanish and British styles, while Los Remedios has European and Native American burials in Christian style.
New graves discovered during flood mitigation in January are being excavated this week by city archaeologist Carl Halbirt due to a planned expansion of a water main through St. Augustine’s Charlotte Street. Halbirt and his team found burials both under the cobblestone street and within what is now the Fiesta Mall, a small building in downtown.
Based on the majolica pottery inclusions, the burials date to 1572–1586 and were therefore almost certainly among the earliest made in St. Augustine. The style of burial is Christian, with the skulls oriented to the east and the arms crossed over the front of the body. The discovery of these graves also means that archaeologists have further physical evidence from Los Remedios, cementing its label as the oldest known parish church in the United States.
John Worth, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida who was not involved in the study, tells mental_floss that this discovery is immensely significant. “Not only do they contribute to an understanding of the church itself, the burials may provide an opportunity to learn more about Florida’s earliest European permanent residents, including perhaps where they originally came from,” Worth says. If the people unearthed were indeed founders of St. Augustine, Worth notes, their skeletons may reveal “the struggles of life during the first two decades of the city’s earliest history.”
Analysis of the remains themselves is only just beginning, but preliminary work by University of Florida anthropologist John Krigbaum suggests the people who were just found appear to be European adults. If the state allows destructive testing, further research will be done on samples from the skeletons to potentially investigate their geographic origins, diets, and any diseases they had. The burials themselves, though, may stay put under the floor or may be reburied at the historic Catholic Tolomato Cemetery.
For a look inside the excavation, check out the segment below from First Coast News.