Carl Wernicke: Let's Make Sure We Leave Something Good Behind

Aug 16, 2017

Recently I came across a fascinating article on the discovery in France of spectacular ruins. Developers working on a new subdivision uncovered an ancient Roman suburb that was remarkably preserved.

According to The New York Times article, the ruins included shops for metalworking, grocery stores, a warehouse full of wine jugs, a couple of houses with expensive floor mosaics and more.

There’s something about digging up the past that intrigues me. It’s like getting answers to questions you didn’t know to ask. It’s why when I go out for a hike I often end up going farther than I planned, because I always think that going around the next bend or over the next rise will reveal something amazing.

Some of my most vivid memories of a trip to Spain last year are of Roman ruins in the basement of a museum in Barcelona. In a sense they were quite mundane: a laundry, a winery, warehouse storage and variety of shops that served the routine needs of daily life. But given several thousand years under the ground, their discovery takes on a very real magic.

This was underscored by the recent report on WUWF announcing new details from University of West Florida archaeologists about the excavation of the 1559 Luna settlement in Pensacola.

Using data analyzing where artifacts have been found, researchers estimate the site covers at least 27 acres, making it the largest mid-16th century Spanish residential settlement in North America. That’s a big deal; it’s bigger than St. Augustine when it was first settled in 1565, or Santa Elena, settled on the coast of South Carolina in 1566. Researchers say they believe they have identified locations of buildings as disparate as a warehouse and the house of a high-status official.

Meanwhile, getting less attention, other UWF archaeologists are digging in the same area on Native American remains. I recently viewed a dig on an ancient shell midden full of oyster and clam shells, evidence of where Native Americans feasted on the natural bounty of shellfish from Pensacola Bay and Bayou Texar.

Nobody in their right mind today would eat oysters from Bayou Texar, despite years of efforts to improve its water quality. You can still find oysters in the bayou; they cling to the pilings on the railroad trestle, and on riprap at the mouth. I’m sure there are some on pilings elsewhere, but the hard sand bottom needed to support reefs is mostly smothered under layers of polluted silt.

But back when the bayou was pristine, it must have been a culinary playground for Native Americans with abundant fish, crabs, clams, oysters and shrimp. At times today you can still catch shrimp in nets in some areas, so back when the bay  and its bayous were pristine I imagine even crude nets produced a rich bounty.

Not far from these digs is the Pensacola Bay Oyster Co. farm in the bay, an effort to reinvigorate oyster production by using floating cages. The company’s founder and owner, Don McMahon, recently spoke at the Bream Fishermen Association meeting on the challenges of pioneering oyster farming in Pensacola Bay. He learned a hard lesson when this summer’s heavy rains all but destroyed the crop.

But to me all of this is a part of the whole. The Romans came and went (not here, of course), Native Americans came and went, and Tristan de Luna came and went. It would be nice to think that when someone digs up our remains, they will be able to say something good about what we leave behind.