UNF students digging for artifacts from lost Indigenous town at Big Talbot Island State Park

Excavation location believed to be the native Mocama village of Sarabay

University of North Florida students are getting the chance of a lifetime, as they help unearth pieces of a lost indigenous town. Thousands of artifacts have been discovered in at the site, which may be the Mocama village of Sarabay.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Students with the University of North Florida Archaeology Lab are getting the chance of a lifetime: They’re helping unearth pieces of a lost Indigenous town.

The location at Big Talbot Island State Park is now supported by overwhelming evidence to be the native Mocama village of Sarabay. According to the university, the UNF team first found artifacts and building posts that confirmed their discovery in 2020.

For Annie Bitner, having the chance to see the location, dig and see lost artifacts up close is a gamechanger.

“It’s amazing just to get to see the layout and stuff,” Bitner said. “You’ll read about them in textbooks, but to see the size and the amount of land that they took up.”

Digging for artifacts (Copyright 2022 by WJXT News4Jax - All rights reserved.)

The university says this summer, the team identified four more building posts to add to seven that were uncovered last year. Dr. Keith Ashley, a UNF Assistant Professor of Archaeology, is overseeing the project and says the building posts indicate a larger building approximately 50-60 feet in diameter.

Ashley said it’s likely this building was the community council house. He gave News4JAX a closer look at the outlines of the posts.

“You can see how they’re making this arc, trees don’t grow this way,” Ashley said. “And the artifacts we’re finding from them are indigenous artifacts dating 400-500 years ago.”

Tons of artifacts have been uncovered. The university says much of this includes centuries-old Indigenous pottery, 10 to 15 pieces of Spanish olive jar, and a large type of storage vessel made in Spain. Also discovered were 10 pieces of Spanish majolica, a painted tableware form of pottery from Spain, among other items. Ashley showed News4JAX a few pieces.

“This pottery that you see right there, that’s what the Mocama are making when the Spanish and French first arrived in the 1560s,” Ashley said.

Ashley says these findings give the best lesson for his students.

Dr. Keith Ashley says these findings give the best lesson for his students. (WJXT)

“When they touch something that no one else has touched in 400-500 years, when they start to see features or stains that they read about that are really abstract,” Ashley said. “But they see them in reality, they really catch on.”

Bitner said this is just another reminder of why it’s important to preserve history.

“Indigenous people are still today fighting for their basic human rights, so bringing any kind of attention them, including their past, is really vital to just understanding their history,” Bitner said. “The pressures that happened on them, that has caused what has happened today, such as generational trauma.”

Ashley said the team will analyze what has been found and from there, the artifacts will be sent to Tallahassee to be curated. They can then be put on temporary displays, which is a goal.

About the Author:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.