Archaeologists race to keep up with development

Katherine Sims is busier than ever.

She’s one of just two archaeologists in St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 and touted as America’s Oldest City.

Tourists and new residents are arriving in droves, making it ever more difficult to protect archaeological sites, she says. My conversation with Sims is below.

Losing Florida: Could you tell me a little about your background and your tie to the state of Florida?

Sims: I’m the research and collections archeologist for the city of St. Augustine’s archeology program. I have a bachelor’s degree in anthropology with a minor in history and a master’s degree in historical archeology. I do a lot of work with our local municipal government and part of the city government, working with our archeological collection. So I manage our archeology lab, all of our lab analysis, collections, and curations.

I also work with a lot of our digital data art like maps, scans, documents and things to try to keep those things preserved for future research because we’re an archeology program that isn’t really a research driven organization. We do a lot of salvage.

So, you mentioned the Yallaha plantation.

We do work ahead of construction to salvage what’s there before it’s destroyed. So our hope is to save the collections for future research.

Losing Florida: And where does the word Yallaha derive from?

Sims: Yallaha, it’s a Seminole word. Nobody really knows how to pronounce it. It’s not a Spanish word.

Losing Florida: Good to know. I’m not really familiar at all with it, but I’m interested because I know that it is an area that could potentially be impacted by growth and development. So could you just give me a little background on the plantation and what you do there?

Sims: I actually don’t have that much background information to give you. It’s a brand new project – we just started it. We’re probably going to be out there for a couple years doing work. I do know that it was, to the best of our knowledge, we think it’s a second Spanish period Orange Grove plantation. One of the first commercial efforts to grow oranges here in Florida. But the history of it is a little obscure and there’s never been any kind of formal research done on it. So that’s something that’s on my to do list. I just haven’t had a chance.

The house itself where we’re working is the oldest standing structure in Lincolnville. The earliest portion of the house was built probably sometime in the early 1800s. But again, that date is pretty obscure.

Since then, it’s been added onto multiple times. So there’s a little bit of a Frankenstein component to it. There’s a lot of additions to the house for what it looks like today, it was originally not that big.

It’s a really cool house and it’s been newly purchased. The new owners are trying to salvage part of the structure. They’re trying to rehabilitate it. I don’t know if you’ve driven by there or seen it, but the roof is collapsing. The east wall is about to collapse. It’s pretty rough. It needs a lot of work. So they’re trying to salvage what they can. It’s been abandoned for many, many years. So it’s kind of at a point of dilapidation, really. Termite damage and just general disrepair, overgrown issues on the property.

So we’re doing work ahead of the rehabilitation. They’re putting in an addition, they’re going to be doing a lot more work on that property, which is what triggered the archeology of the site.

It’s probably worth noting that our work is very unique because all of the work that we do for the archeology program falls within our own local archeology preservation ordinance. So the work that we do is not defined by the state, it doesn’t come from the state level. It comes from our own local municipal government.

And our ordinance gives us an opportunity to do salvage operations on properties, both public and private, commercial, residential, any properties that are in an archeological zone. And there’s 18 archeological zones in St. Augustine that are known or thought to contain archeological resources, dating back 4,000 years of human occupation.

So there are a ton of different sites that we work on all across the city.

Losing Florida: That’s amazing. Specifically in Lincolnville, people are coming in and it’s such a desirable area to buy property right now. And a lot of times, unfortunately, instead of trying to salvage and restore, or at least mimic the original property, people are just knocking things down and creating entirely new structures instead of trying to hold onto the original authenticity of what was there before.

So I guess it’s nice hearing that with the plantation, they’re at least trying to restore it or keep it similar to what it once was.

Sims: Yeah. Especially in the Lincolnville neighborhood, we see a lot of what we call “demolition by neglect,” where there are historic properties, but nobody’s taking care of them. Nobody’s maintaining them. And when they finally get to a point like a big storm rolls in, or where the structure just can’t hold on to itself anymore, then they apply for demolition.

And there are mechanisms in our own city government to help to reduce the amount of demolitions on historic properties. Lincolnville is its own historic district, and the structures within that district contribute to it. So let’s say there were a hundred properties that originally contributed to the district, and you need at least 50. The properties being demolished are still historic.

So we see a lot of demolition by neglect. And part of it is also because it is such a desirable neighborhood. The lots historically were bigger. And what we’re seeing is that one property is being demolished, but two properties are going back in its place.

The lots are actually being split up to be smaller, to fit more real estate on the same area of land. So that’s part of it too. It’s a multifaceted problem. There truly are some structures that probably can’t be saved anymore, but there are definitely a lot still there that could be, and they’re just not being maintained.

Losing Florida: Well, hopefully something will happen where people are able to take over and do that.

You started to mention how there are so many different sites in St. Augustine that you guys work on. If you want to touch on any other sites that you’ve worked on, do you think that development has impacted the sites directly where it’s threatening them or is just taking over in any other ways?

Sims: I’d say it depends. There are a lot of sites in St. Augustine where we’re seeing a lot more development in general. There are a lot more ground disturbing activities that we’re seeing all across these archeology zones. because a lot of those zones they’re in, they designate no archeological resources.

But the thing is, people like to live in the same place for a very long time. What’s desirable real estate now has always been desirable real estate. So we’ve got 4,000-year-old sites in the middle of residential neighborhoods.

And the last two years of the pandemic, everyone’s been home. Everyone wants a pool now because they’re home. So we’ve seen a record number of swimming pools go in, which are just the most destructive construction activity that could possibly be done on a residential property because they’re huge, massive, deep holes. And we sample those areas, but you can’t sample it all.

We cannot salvage archaeology faster than the rate of those projects.

Losing Florida: Well, that’s something that I didn’t even think about. It makes sense that swimming pools would be so disruptive because like you said, they dig a massive hole in the earth and just pull all of that out.

Sims: Yeah, and let’s say that they’re three or four feet deep, which isn’t outside of the realm of possibilities, but if you’re digging a six or seven foot deep swimming pool is gone, it’s 100% gone. So it’s definitely a tricky situation where it takes an enormous amount of time for us to investigate them.

But we’re also being flooded with a record number of projects. We are at the busiest point the city has ever been for project submissions for archeology review.

Losing Florida: Well, there’s a side of that that seems really exciting. And then a side of it that’s probably overwhelming just because there are so many places that you need to get to for sampling.

With the ordinance, do you get a certain timeframe or how does it work when there’s a new area of land that needs to be examined?

Sims: So the way that our ordinance reads, there are specific timelines in the ordinance, but on the practical side of it, it’s not really how it shakes out most of the time.

When we get a project from the station, the best we can, we try to work with our contractors and the property owners to not hold them up on their construction schedules, but it’s not like as soon as someone applies for an archeology review from the city, they’re ready to go immediately. So sometimes they put in an application, but they’re not going to be doing the work for a couple of months down the road.

So our timelines are highly flexible depending on the scope of work, and when the work is going to be completed. There’s not a hard and fast rule for how much time we spend on a property.

Losing Florida: Well, that’s good to know.

Sims: Yeah, we do a lot of rushing. We do a lot of trying to finish our projects as quickly as we can because it all becomes a problem when there are only so many hours in the day. And the more projects that we get, the more we have to distribute our time. We have to prioritize.

There are only two of us. Our whole program is staffed by two people.

Losing Florida: Well, yeah. And that’s a big head nod to you too because tackling all of those projects is probably taxing, and I could see how it could be stressful trying to make sure that you’re getting the best information and getting as much as you can from each site before things kind of take over.

This leads into my next question, I’m curious if there’s anything that you would like to see happen, do you think that things could be better between archeologists and developers and trying to kind of bridge the two, while also working with city administrators and entities of that matter?

Do you think that the process could become better and more efficient in the future?

Sims: Well, I’ll preface it by saying there’s a lot of things I’d like to see happen. We have a lot of pipe dreams, and a lot of it’s just not practical.

The archeology program is subsidized by the city. So we do collect fees as part of our archeology review process, but the fees are nowhere near enough to cover the cost of doing archeology. And the other part of it is that field work is only 25% of what we do. So we go out and excavate, but then we have to come back and take care of the artifacts.

And our artifacts have to be washed, sorted, bagged, cataloged, analyzed and put into a database. There’s so much more that comes after the field work. We need to do analysis and reports and curate that collection in perpetuity.

So our biggest issue at the moment is that we don’t have the staff power to keep up with the rate of development in the city.

Losing Florida: And is that just because there aren’t enough archeologists?

Sims: It just comes down to funding. Like I said, we don’t collect enough money in the fees to pay for another shaft person.

The city pays the city, subsidizes the program, they pay for the program. It comes out of their general fund. So even though we need more stuff, it’s not something that we can always say, “this there’s no amount of projects that we can do that would be enough to pay for more staff. So it’s prioritized if it’s important and it needs to be done, and the city recognizes that it’s important. And the city has always been a huge supporter of archeology.

We’re one of the few places in the entire United States that even has an archeology program. We’re very fortunate to have the support of the city, and we’ll continue to have the support of the city, but it’s more of an issue that the city is growing at such an exponential rate. That we’re having problems and not even in our own program, but it’s across the board for the city as a whole, every department. There’s not enough staff to accommodate the volume of work that’s coming into the city. The amount of permits is increasing, the amount of work orders is increasing, the amount of utility works to accommodate new houses and repairs and expanded utility areas.

Just across the board, there’s just not enough staff. Everyone needs more staff. It’s not just us.

Losing Florida: Yeah. And that seems to be the case everywhere right now.

From my perspective, as a student at Flagler, I can tell that it’s definitely changed over the course of the past four years. There’s just a big influx of tourism and there’s a lot going on here now. And then you add the pandemic on top of that… Unprecedented times.

Sims: The past two years for sure. It’s been a rough two years. We have a symbiotic relationship with the tourist industry and it is so important because we’re doing archeology, we’re preserving the history, we’re trying to document these archeological resources, which are all a big part of why many people come here. They come here for the history and the archeology.

So we couldn’t do the work without the tourists. But at the same time, when we’re having too much influx, we aren’t equipped to deal with it.

Losing Florida: Right. And it’s interesting to see because it’s kind of a, “only time will tell” situation since there’s no way of knowing what it’s going to look like down the road. Of course, you can project and assume what will happen, but it’s hard to tell because the city’s infrastructure can only accommodate so many people.

For my final question, based on what we’ve talked about and your thoughts on everything, is there anything else you would like to add that you think is worth noting?

Sims: As difficult as it can be trying to work for a local city government where we are understaffed and overworked, and we’re having such a hard time keeping up with the volume of projects – we talked a lot about the volume of projects, the amount of development, and the amount of increased workload for the staff – we’re trying as hard as we can.

We are, we’re giving it our all. We’re trying, and so is everyone else in the city.

Losing Florida: That’s wonderful that you are. Some people would probably look at it and say, “Nope, I can’t do it,” but it’s great that you’re all persevering and working through it.

Sims: I mean, what else is there to do? We have to be our own advocates for historic preservation and archeology.

We are the advocates, right? If we don’t save it, who will?

Story by McKenna Moonan. Images: City of St. Augustine

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