You'll Dig Tallahassee’s Mission San Luis

By: Gary McKechnie


Maybe it’s watching Indiana Jones unearth the Ark of the Covenant in less than five minutes, or knowing you can find the remains of 15th Century kings beneath London parking lots.

But there’s a natural expectation that, if you visit an archaeological site and ask nicely, researchers will discover a biblical scroll or a gold-shrouded sarcophagus for you.

But is that what really happens at digs?

Not exactly. For the right answer I visited Tallahassee’s Mission San Luis (2100 W. Tennessee St., 850/245-6406). Between 1656 and 1704 this was the home of Native Americans and newly arrived Spanish explorers who lived and worked in neighboring settlements.

What makes Mission San Luis special is that, in a field of science where it can take centuries just to locate a site, and often years just to find a single artifact, it’s one of only two mission sites in Florida (the other is St. Augustine’s Nombre de Dios) whose location was never lost.

A Tale Old as Time

Once the headquarters of both the Apalachee chief and a Spanish deputy governor, the heart of the settlement is on a 200-foot rise about two miles west of Florida State University. In the 1500s, the Apalachee province reached the Gulf of Mexico on the south, the Aucilla River to the east, the Ochlockonee River to the west, and an undetermined distance to the north.

Although the Apalachee had previously met explorers Hernando DeSoto and Pánfilo de Narváez with hostility (each was determined to find gold, which was nonexistent here), by 1608 attitudes had changed. Apalachee chiefs requested Spanish friars be sent to their territory and the first Spanish missions to the region began a few decades later.

But time, economic hardships, and the arrival of the British in ‘Charlestown’ South Carolina altered the attitudes of the Apalachee again. Their labor had enriched only the Spaniards, and most of the natives refused to help the Spaniards combat the encroaching British. Knowing they couldn’t defend Mission San Luis, in 1704 the Spaniards and remaining loyal Apalachee burned the mission and abandoned the province. Some Apalachee were made slaves by the British, but most assimilated into some of the Creek groups that would later make up the Seminoles. 

And Mission San Luis?  By the Civil War it had become part of an 816-acre plantation but by the 1930s was reduced to a (still impressive) 362-acre estate owned by James Messer. Its presence known, the mission inspired an initial 1948 excavation, followed by field schools in 1956 and 1957. Curiosity continued to peak and, convinced that a wealth of artifacts had been hidden by nature and time, in 1983 the State of Florida purchased an initial 50 acres (now 63 acres) from the Messer family, which gave scientists time to research, and ultimately recreate, the village at Mission San Luis.

They certainly have needed the time. In order not to damage an artifact, archaeologist work with extreme delicacy as they sift through and brush away centuries of dust and earth. Then where each piece is discovered -- even items as small as a bead -- is noted before being analyzed and catalogued.

The pace is glacial.

In the on-site lab at Mission San Luis, archaeologists continue to review artifacts unearthed not last week or last month or even last year -- they’re analyzing items discovered in a flurry of excavation that ended in 2002.

In an age of instant gratification, what makes the slow-paced science of archaeology so appealing? For senior archaeologist Jerry Lee, the biggest thrill comes with each new discovery.

“When you’re excavating in the field or working in a lab, there’s a moment in time when you realize something special about an artifact. And until it’s photographed or you share this with a colleague, at that time you’re the only person in the world who knows this secret. For a while, you’re the only one. And that’s pretty neat.”

Treasure Island

It’s interesting to think that every day in Tallahassee, students and citizens are walking, jogging, and driving over what may be a sea of antiquities.

“If you looked beneath the shopping center across the street or dug up the FSU apartments down the road,” says Lee, “You’d find artifacts.”

Centuries from now researchers may explore those remote sites, but today you’ll find treasures uncovered by Lee and his colleagues beautifully displayed and explained inside the mission’s museum.

And there’s more where those came from.

In an adjacent building, concealed and catalogued within gray metal cabinets are thousands of additional artifacts that were meticulously brought back to life fragment by tiny fragment. From a sliding tray, Lee brings out pottery shards, glass beads, clay figurines, and ‘figas’ (amulets designed to ward off the ‘evil eye’). Disposable at the time (many artifacts were excavated from clay ‘trash pits’), age and heritage have made these pieces as fantastic as anything found in a Parisian jewelry case.

From each drawer, Lee plucks priceless artifacts such as an Apalachee Indian jar in a style dating back to the 1300s. Next, a clay frying pan, replicating the form introduced by European explorers. There are plates marked with distinct patterns archaeologists have learned to recognize and categorize. Other artistic treasures include small clay faces that may have been part a child’s doll, a clay female torso whose purpose remains a mystery, a double-handled cup with a European-inspired foot ring, a portion of a brass bell from the Spanish convento, multi-colored glass beads that may have been brought over by Hernando De Soto in the 1530s, and blue and white majolica dishware. Incredibly, there’s even Chinese porcelain…

Made in China

“These pieces were shipped through Manila and to Acapulco then off-loaded to travel overland to Vera Cruz,” explains Lee. “From there they went by ship to Havana and arrived at the Port of St. Mark’s just 20 miles south of here. With a port so close by, goods from all over the world could actually get here fairly easily.”

And it’s fairly easy to visit one of America’s most fascinating historical sites. In addition to an introductory film, museum and special tours and educational events, guides in period costume are on hand to explain recreations of the Apalachee council house, Spanish village, Spanish fort, and church complex.

So, put Mission San Luis on your travel calendar.

It’s about time.

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