Growth and development affects hundreds and perhaps thousands of cultural and heritage sites across Florida, archaeologists say.
One of the main obstacles to preservation is the blatant lack of awareness that a site may exist. Archaeologists often don’t learn about a potentially important new site until bulldozers have ripped through it, making it tough to piece the site back together.
I spoke with Sarah Miller to learn more about the challenges archaeologists face. She is director of the northeast and east central regions of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.
My conversation with her is below:
Losing Florida: Could you tell me a little about your background and your tie to the state of Florida?
Miller: I moved here in 2006 to be part of the Florida Public Archeology Network that was just getting formed. And I was the first director hired and we have a mission to help with education outreach, to help assist local governments, and to assist the state’s division of historical resources.
I don’t work for the state of Florida. I’m a full-time Flagler College employee, but our grant is paid through the state university system. And then we assist the state issues with heritage and archeological resources. So at that time, in 2006, I had to do a crash course of the history and prehistory. I had to get dive certified so I could help monitor wrecks in public waters – submerged waters… I spent a lot of time traveling all across Florida, I’ve gotten to know the geography pretty well.
And when FPAN started, we were made up of regions. So I had seven counties in Northeast Florida that I had to get to know better and travel around, and then they did the consolidation, so now I have 15 counties that I know extremely well in the state of Florida. And then the other ones, I help out other centers as they may need assistance.
Losing Florida: Oh, well, that’s perfect because I know that your main area of expertise is the Northeast region of Florida, but I assumed you would have knowledge of the entire state, which is obviously relevant to this, since development is going on everywhere. So I’m sure you have insight on culture throughout the entire state of Florida and how it’s being impacted.
Miller: Well, the first kind of mission of FPAN was, in a nutshell, was to protect the state’s buried past through education and outreach. And for the first few years we thought the main threat was development, and now we understand it to be development, yes, but the impacts of the climate crisis are going to be tremendous. So we’ve taken that into the fold of our mission as well.
Losing Florida: Right. And obviously those things go hand in hand to an extent as well. So for my next question, have you noticed significant changes over time since you’ve been here? I’m not familiar with the preservation protocols that are already in place, and I would assume there’s probably a huge movement to protect these cultural and archeological sites, so how has development disrupted that?
Miller: Archeological sites and heritage sites get impacted in several ways. First is just expansion and moving into areas that have not had development before. So when you get a new subdivision, it’s a huge impact because it’s not just a 1,000-square-foot house or whatever, you know, you get a hundred, so these tracts of land that get cleared.
And when they clear a lot of vegetation, I did not know until midway through my time here, they get a backhoe and they crisscross the site, and they just pull up all the roots, and they shake them over and over to get the sand out, get the soil out, to rip up the trees and the routes. So a few times we’ve gotten called out because of human burials or things that are in there. And when you get out there, you’re like Jesus, because they’ve just scraped the whole site. It’s like they shook it upside down and it’s hard to know where things came from.
So that can happen exponentially when they are clearing land for development and some counties have ordinances that request surveying like Duval and in Jacksonville. If you’re going to put in a subdivision, there’s a subdivision ordinance that says they have to do a survey first, but if you’re just developing a single lot as a homeowner or landowner, it doesn’t kick in. So it’s better because the impact is less for a single house.
But they might have to survey before a big subdivision goes in, but you’re talking mass tracts of land. And a lot of things get missed in surveys. St. Augustine is very unique. We’re one of the only cities in the country that has an archeology ordinance that protects private land. So with different zones in the city, you may or may not have to have an archeological survey or investigation done before that is developed.
And there’s not a lot of undeveloped land. Most places in St. Augustine already have houses or structures on them, but if they’re moving into parts that have not been torn up before, and because of our historic nature, they did not clear the sites like they do now with these old forests where they just scratch and pull everything up.
So that’s very useful and it helps me sleep at night, knowing not a lot is going through in St. Augustine without that getting triggered. So that’s one large way development impacts archeological sites, just by its ground disturbing nature and the volume. We see a lot of shoreline loss, and how that translates into development is either that people are rebuilding, or they’re pulling back a little bit, or they’re migrating inland into other parts of the state.
So any destruction by a hurricane, by a nor’easter, it has that initial damage to the site, but the development part kicks in because of the construction and the relocation. And also, where are you going to stage your big reconstruction events? You know, you may be focused on just a part of the coast, but they need to stage all the construction equipment and machinery somewhere else. And that’s going to tear up parts of the site.
The third thing I’d say is that corporate lands are often grandfathered in or not included in a lot of the protections, and a lot of them we’re seeing turn to development overnight. Like a lumber company, for example, they are investing in the future of trees 20 years from now.
They may get a better return on their investment by selling that land at high rates. And then what has been held in somewhat “environmental protection,” or not turned over as much, gets switched overnight into being development land for subdivision and housing, and that gets back to the first problem of these crisscrosses, which is very different from the way they would harvest, or trees all in a row.
Which is also very disturbing, but they don’t do the same stump removal, they don’t do the same root removal, so it’s just a very different kind of scary, scary issue because if there’s not an ordinance in place, when they develop that land, burial sites could be lost, plantation sites could be lost.
The turpentine industry and railroad industry were huge in Florida, and those kinds of very large linear and ephemeral sites can disappear. And my number one concern is human burial sites. Cemeteries that were marked or unmarked. And if people don’t know what they’re looking for, short of getting like a human head in they’re backhoe track, they may not know that they’ve disturbed – a burial or a burial mound.
Losing Florida: That makes so much sense because like you said many, many years ago when there weren’t ordinances in place, those things were disrupted all the time, but it’s unfortunate that it still takes place, especially in a circumstance where nobody knows that something’s there – there’s no way of knowing until the land is ripped up.
Regarding the kind of general idea of how development impacts culture, is there anything specific from what you have worked on? Either around St. Augustine and surrounding areas, or even throughout the entire state of Florida, are there any specific cultural sites? I know you mentioned burial sites and things of that matter, but is there anything else that jumps out at you that you’re passionate about that’s been impacted by development?
Miller: There are a lot of mission sites that are located in St. Augustine and outside of St. Augustine. And they were places of mass migration that got built up very quickly, and could be sprawling. So it’s difficult to pinpoint a center of those sites and know that they have been protected.
We have seen a lot of private home development impact further out in the county. People want to build garages or expand the footprint of their home. And then seeing this, being able to get a peek into the mission sites each time somebody makes an impact on their home, but it’s still not the same as being systematically studied as the whole site.
Kingsley Plantation in Duval county was slated to be a subdivision development. And it was saved, but I’m just haunted by the fact that this National Register, one of the most significant sites we have for teaching and understanding American slavery, was nearly developed. And there’s also a mission site out there, and they have started to interpret the whole island, St. George Island, as the mission site.
So it gives you an idea how far it can spread, and it only makes sense in Florida the way our islands work, the way our landforms work, is that people would have expanded to the limits of the shore, especially if they were on an island. So we’re missing whole parts of some of these islands because of the development that has taken place.
And we’re just really lucky. A lot of sites in Florida have that story that it was slated for development, and then people fought against that, and then preserved it in many cases, but sometimes development won out.
It’s sort of like an airplane. If you want to see out of an airplane, do you shine the lights on the airplane or do you shine the lights away from the airplane? Knowing that if you’re shining them away, people won’t be able to see it, but they’ll be able to see around it. And if you shine the light on the airplane, they’ll see that, but they’ll kind of forget the darkness beyond the site you’re looking at.
Maybe that’s a horrible analogy, but the focus gets to be like, “Wow, look at this thing that’s saved,” but you’re not thinking, “What about the exponential land that it took to manage a plantation, including slave dwelling sites? Where were people buried? How did they eat? Where was their spring house?”
All these kinds of things that get lost beyond the site, and it’s really tricky.
Bulow Plantation, now a state park, is probably a good representative of how much land is associated with a plantation, but that has lots of subdivisions scattered all around it.
And one of my pet peeves is how often they use historic plantation names to name the subdivision of the thing they’re actually destroying, they’re putting in the house. And so that happens a lot around Bulow and a lot of other sites.
Losing Florida: Yeah it’s frustrating, because on the surface, the public will say, “oh, look how awesome it is that this place was preserved.”
And there’s so much history in this one aspect of this place. All of that other valuable information is just lost when it was really what helped the plantation or whatever the site was to flourish.
Those aspects of the plantation or site were the foundation and backbone that allowed it to even exist and be successful during its time. So that’s unfortunate. We can be thankful for the ones that have been saved, but then there’s that bittersweet feeling of knowing there’s so much that’s been lost and that we won’t ever know all of what was originally there.
Miller: If you want to kind of blow your mind, just think about Lake Okeechobee.
I had a vision of what it would be like to drive down to Lake Okeechobee and walk to it and be around it that it was going to be this huge, wide, flat lake.
It’s the most engineered space in all of Florida.
They built a “hardscape donut” all around it. And part of it was because of the hurricanes, flooding, and controlling the water… But when they built that, it had a huge impact on cultural resources, particularly pre-Colombian – those before European contact. And it’s still unknown. There’s so little surveyed down there. As far as development goes, it’s another huge endeavor that’s just really changed all of those resources.
And the underwater ones too. You can say a lot about the increase in salinity due to development, of trying to get the Jacksonville ports deeper. You know, now that the Panama canal allows the deeper draft of boats, all these places have had to deepen their ports. So that’s a development impact that travels up the river and changes all of our submerged resource protection levels as well because of increased salinity and temperature changes.
Looking beyond Northeast Florida, it’s not just a site or two, it’s hundreds, potentially thousands of sites that get impacted by these development decisions.
Losing Florida: And with the development decisions, when it comes to implementing an ordinance or whatever has to take place in order to protect some of these sites, what is the process like for that? Is it easy or is it kind of difficult to get some of these things done? The process of getting the ordinance in place and then once the ordinance is in place, are there any difficulties between archeologists and developers?
Miller: Yeah, I’ll say a few things. About three categories of a response:
One is that archeologists don’t often stop development. They just want to stop and peek and record what’s there before it’s disturbed forever because they’re non-renewable resources. So in the city of St. Augustine, only once ever has the archeology stopped the development. Otherwise, everything else has gone through.
That’s pretty phenomenal given the amount of projects that the city has done. The only thing that has ever stopped development in St. Augustine was the burials found and the mission site that’s down south near the council of aging. And that’s the only thing that has ever stopped any construction in St. Augustine from happening.
It’s tricky with our elected officials, we always want to remind them that archaeology doesn’t stop development, but it does need a little time to get documented – because if we were to stop all development, that’s an economic impact that nobody wants to accept. So we try to pick our battles very carefully.
When an ordinance is not in place, it’s kind of a free for all because private property rights in our country are unlike just about anywhere else. You can find the most significant sites, and the only thing that’s going to stop something on private property, no matter what it is, no matter what kind of site, is if there’s a human burial there, then there are laws to protect it. It’s chapter 872, and that will protect a human burial no matter who owns it.
But anything else, you could find the first fort of St. Augustine. You could find the most important site anyone’s ever found, and if it’s on private property, for the most part, nothing without the landowner’s consent and blessing can be salvaged indefinitely. So it’s a bit of a free for all, and it goes back to private property rights.
To get an ordinance in place is very difficult because you are going to have all of these entities fighting against you. One of my favorite lessons in project archeology is after we go through weeks of a unit with kids, the culminating event is a city council meeting where someone represents an archeologist, someone represents the developer, someone represents new families living moving to the area, and then a fourth person represents the descendant group. And it’s tricky.
We’ve even done this activity with actual city and county council members, and we just know, it never works out like the kids hope it will. People won’t listen to the archeologists or the descendants. A lot of times, it’s just the developer and the economic drive is so strong. So getting things on paper can be difficult and it takes years because you first have to get it introduced as an element in their comprehensive plan to be able to build the support for a more detailed ordinance to take shape.
So I’ve only seen it happen once or twice where a new one is formed in Northeast Florida. It’s very hard to do and you really have to battle the entities, and they turn out getting really specific, like a metal detector ordinance or something specific that you didn’t think was going to happen when they started looking at archeology ordinance.
When an ordinance is in place, there is still wiggle room. You need to think about who is going to review the project who says that an archeology survey needs to happen. And then you need to think about who’s going to approve the report when written.
So you are trusting two people, who maybe don’t have a lot of training, to make a call that yes, this triggers the need to protect the site or to study the site. And consultants, they’re in the private sector, their time is budgeted, very valuable, they’re not going to not do their job, but they’re not going to do more than what they’re contracted to do.
I was a reviewer in the state of Kentucky, and it’s just very adversarial, because as a reviewer, I would review the projects that needed a survey and sometimes there was pushback to even get the work done. Just pretty much all the consultants, somebody called me the dragon lady. I’m the nicest person, and it’s like, why did it have to be that way?
Because archeologists, in theory, are friends and get along.
Losing Florida: Yeah, it should be that way. For my last question, we know you’ll hopefully have the time to examine these sites and get the information that you need, but that development is inevitable. Thinking futuristically, is there anything that you’re hoping to see happen with the preservation of culture as development continues to increase?
Miller: I have a couple ideas to share. One is about a state plan, another is about public art, and the other is about changing our laws at the moment.
The first is the state plan, we don’t exactly have a state plan that tells us what our priorities are for research. If we had that pulled together and understood, where are the gaps? What do we not understand? What could science help answer about what we don’t know about plantations or missions or other sites?
If we had that plan, that would help us so that when development or construction happens, we could prioritize a site that could potentially give us some answers to the most critical questions we have, but we’re not really set up that way. Some states do have a state plan. And then the problem is, who tracks how well you’re even keeping to that plan?
So it’s a nice pie in the sky idea, but we don’t really have that kind of state coordination. We’re really at the mercy of the developers and what they’re going to develop, and then just hoping it will fill in these answers, versus taking this larger view approach.
The second is, it would be great if there were more awards or more accolades for private landowners and developers. That’s why there’s a lot of tax credits, there’s Florida trust awards, just trying to award those who do go above and beyond by recognizing what they have, and those who pause or put some money towards the study or preservation. A good example of this in St. Augustine are the 1570s burials that were found on King Street a couple of years ago, they were under a wine shop and that shop had to close.
They opened up all the floorboards and it was not done at the landowner’s expense, the University of Florida and the city of St. Augustine got involved, but they lost a lot of business to stop and let them get in there for that stretch of time. So those kinds of things, we need to reward those who make that time to pause and then to support the public exhibition of what they find.
A lot of what the city of St. Augustine has uncovered belongs to the private landowners who they did the work for. Some of it they donate or let the city store and curate, but how great would it be if the businesses or the B&Bs that have had work done, if they had an exhibit on the work integrated in an artistic way, but gave some appreciation to the space.
That would be great because the number one economic driver in our town is the heritage, but if you’re destroying the heritage to get more people here without explaining to them how important the heritage is… It gets really confusing.
Then the third thing was just a revamp of our laws. The main law we have in this country to stand on for preservation is section 106, and section 106 is the consultation process that happens when ground disturbing activities using federal dollars or on federal land occurs.
And you have to stop and review the project to see if there are any impacts. And if there are, you have to mitigate the impacts, usually by survey and excavation. So the federal 106 law is echoed in state laws. So any state lands or state funds, triggers the need to do these surveys. And that’s where like 90 to 95 percent of the archeology happens in this country.
But there are a lot of faults with 106. It doesn’t, again, consider private land at all, unless they’re using federal dollars or state dollars. It doesn’t include climate change, which I know is not the main subject, but it just shows this huge gap.
Up to 10% of a budget can be spent on archeology. So what if there’s no one paying for the damage? What if it’s a hurricane and it does not want to pay the bill you’re sending? It can get pretty messy and without equity. So it needs to be rewritten by lawyers who can account for more changes, and our lives just aren’t very flexible.
A lot of the outcome of these projects, and of development driven projects, is curation. So once you’re building a subdivision in Jacksonville. You’ve got to pause and survey, and if things are going to get impacted, you have to mitigate, then you excavate. But then all the materials from your excavation are stored in perpetuity in Tallahassee.
So I think this conservation piece is also a thing people don’t realize, the culture of preservation is not just, “we did a dig, we’re done,” this curation problem goes on for a hundred years. As long as we are a state of Florida, we will have a constant curation problem of how to store those artifacts.
But for students, it’s really important because as development increases, they can go back and look at these legacy collections. And that’s part of why they’re doing the excavations to begin with, so that they can understand and ask questions down the road.
Story by McKenna Moonan. Photos: floridastateparks.org