Archeologist uncovers lost treasures from “Oldest City”

Written and Photographed by Phillip C. Sunkel IV

For Carl Halbirt, finding hidden treasures isn’t only his passion, it’s his job.

As the city archeologist of St. Augustine— the nation’s oldest permanent European city — Halbirt has a passion for finding the treasures which lie beneath our feet in limited amounts of time. With his digs being constantly cut short due to construction projects around the city, Halbirt is constantly being put under pressure to get his work done quick and efficiently.

“It’s a fact of life. You learn to live with it,” he said. “You have a timeline where you need to get in, investigate and get out.”

His latest project, located on the site of a new trolley stop, has uncovered what could be the remains of one of the three original Spanish-era forts burned down before the Castillo de San Marcos. There is also the possibility that the site could have been a labor camp used by workers while building the fort.

The dig, located in front of the White Lion Bar and Restaurant on Avenida Menendez, is proving to be rich with discoveries. Along with signs in the soil that indicate a fort stood there, Halbirt and his team of volunteers have unearthed intact glass bottles, an ornate candlestick holder, shards of colored pottery, plates and animal remains.

Halbirt, who has been the city archaeologist since 1990, has also seen his fair share of memorable digs around the city. One of those digs was at the old Monson Motor Lodge where the Hilton now resides on the bayfront. What made this dig different for Halbirt and his volunteers was that they would dig in a room and through the soil, then cover the hole up and move on to the next room, all while the hotel was open.

“Very few archaeologists can say they have worked under chandeliers,” said Halbirt.

Another memorable dig Halbirt mentions is that of a disarticulated donkey found on Anastasia Island. The limbs of the donkey had been removed with precise clean cuts while the head remained intact to the torso, the donkey was arranged with limbs on top of the body suggesting this was some sort of ritual burial. Halbirt believes the donkey could have been a precious animal to Indian slaves brought over by the Spanish to build the Castillo De San Marcos.

As another day rolls by in St. Augustine, so does another one of Halbirts digs. But as one dig ends, construction begins somewhere else in downtown unearthing more history for Carl Halbirt to investigate.

Carl Halbirt is currently a research associate with Flagler College.

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