Thursday, January 12, 2012

St. Augustine Historical Society Director on Plundering of Historic Artififacts (Before People Knew Better)

Nation's Oldest City: When artifacts were simply treasure

Posted: January 8, 2012 - 12:41am

Interest in St. Augustine by the TV reality show, “The Recovery Project” to dig for treasures here reminded me of an event of 130-plus years ago. In 1879 a worker was digging out a pomegranate tree on the west side of Oneida Street in the citrus grove of William and Harriett Keith when he unearthed seven pieces of religious silver hollowware.

There is no information on what the Keiths might have done in St. Augustine to learn about the items. Instead, the Keiths followed the typical behavior of the time of removing them from the town where they had rested. They carried the silver pieces off to the northeast U.S. Mr. Keith was president of the City Council at the time, but apparently felt no responsibility to leave the treasures in our city.

The Keiths displayed the items in the jewelry store of Messrs. Bigelow, Kennard and Co., at the corner of Washington and West streets in Boston. And why not a jewelry store? The artifacts were made of silver as was the merchandise in the jewelry store. The Keiths then loaned the items to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and in 1928 their niece made a permanent donation of the artifacts to the museum. In 2003 I completed a research report on the items for the Boston MFA.

William Keith was following a contemporary trend when he removed the items found in Florida’s soil to repositories in the north. Investigators who came with scientific expeditions to examine Florida’s prehistoric sand and shell mounds took their discoveries to museums and science departments associated with northern colleges, universities and museums.

This story reveals the infant state of archaeology in the late 1870s and even more the minimal awareness of the general public about what surprises found in the ground could tell about the past. City Archaeologist Carl Halbirt remarked to me in the 1870s “there were actually few educated in archaeology.” The investigators “were looking for goodies” and did not “approach excavating in a systematic way.” The more scientific methods came about in the early 1900s.

And so, we have no information about what lay near the items. Had they been encased in a chest or wrapped in cloth? Without the information on their context, we can only guess when or why they were placed in the ground. If unearthed today, pieces of wood from a chest or fibers from cloth could offer information about when the silver was buried. Other tiny and ordinary-looking small pieces surrounding the cache of silver would today tell us a great deal.

One item clearly announced its date of creation and its benefactor. On the back side of a processional cross, engraving declared that the cross was made May 9, 1721, in Veracruz, Mexico, at the behest of Antonio de Benavides while Benavides was posted to St. Augustine as governor and captain-general of Florida. The other items carried no such explicit information, but surely the history of all of them is closely tied to the history of St. Augustine. But how?

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