When Archaeology and History Meet

Southern Florida artifacts at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Photo by Alejandra Dubcovsky

Today’s guest post is by Alejandra Dubcovsky, University of California, Riverside. Her article, "When Archaeology and History Meet: Shipwrecks, Indians, and the Contours of the Early-Eighteenth-Century South" appears in the February 2018 issue of the Journal.

This article started because I was trying to prove someone wrong. I was at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History selecting artifacts for a special lecture for an undergraduate class. Admiring the museum’s diverse and impressive collection, I bemoaned its lack of materials on Spanish Florida—my area of expertise. The curator insisted that they did in fact have some artifacts and directed me to a set of drawers. I opened the first drawer dismissively saying, “I bet all you have is shells.” I was right. To prove my point, I repeated this exercise over again, quickly opening and shutting drawers with the pronouncement “shells,” as if to say, “See, there is nothing worthwhile here.”

Until I suddenly opened a drawer filled with artifacts that immediately made me regret my earlier, flippant attitude. The items came from an archaeological dig conducted in southern Florida. In addition to shells, there were building tools, beads, bullets, nails, buttons, pipes, and many other items that were unmistakably of European provenance. What were these artifacts? I knew of no European settlement in the region. Who had brought them there? Where were they from? As my list of questions grew, so did my excitement. “More than just shells,” I meekly said to the curator.

After some research, I discovered that these artifacts came from a shipwreck. The Spanish empire depended on a fleet system to transport goods from the Americas back to Europe. In 1715 a fierce hurricane destroyed all eleven of those ships, and they sank off the coast of Florida. Piecing together this story required engaging with Spanish archival documents as well as with archaeological artifacts scattered across three institutions. I soon learned about the enormous treasure that this 1715 Plate Fleet had carried—much of it still buried under the ocean. But it was not the precious jewels or the pieces of eight that caught my eye. It was the pottery.

Native-made pottery and artifacts appeared alongside the remains of a supposedly European shipwreck and salvage camp. The historical records of the 1715 Plate Fleet mention pirates, survivors, and looters but no Indians. Through the archaeological artifacts, a different story within the shipwreck narrative began to emerge. South Florida Indians, like the Ais, Jobes, and Calusas, seldom appear in colonial narratives—especially those as late as 1715. Yet here they were.

By considering both archaeological and historical records together, I was able to bring together two disparate stories: one about European empires, wars, and shipwrecks, and the other about Indian mobility, slavery, and politics. The archaeological artifacts allowed me to reconstruct the presence and actions of people absent from the documentary record; the archival materials helped me make sense of an otherwise random assortment of indigenous and European artifacts. I found this interdisciplinary venture humbling, to say the least. But the payoff was big: a fuller, more nuanced, and dynamic narrative of early southern history.

About the Author

Bethany L. Johnson is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Southern History.