Are These the Skeletons of the First European Colonists in the U.S.?

The city gate to St. Augustine, built in 1808, centuries after the city was first settled by Spanish colonists. Image Credit: Yakin669 via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

When Hurricane Matthew roared through St. Augustine, Florida, in October 2016, many of the town’s historic buildings were damaged. But it wasn’t until a building owner decided to tear up a flooded floor to mitigate water damage that an historic discovery was made—what may be the skeletons of the earliest European colonists in the United States.

The city of St. Augustine was founded by admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had sailed from Spain and spotted land in what is now Florida on August 28, 1565. Menéndez became the first governor of Florida, and St. Augustine was its capital for two centuries. Although Pensacola, Florida, is the oldest multiyear European settlement, founded by Tristán de Luna in 1559, St. Augustine, located in the northeast part of the state, wins the title for being the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the contiguous U.S.

Given the age of the city, St. Augustine’s archaeological team has worked for decades to shed light on various phases of occupation. In 1572, the town was relocated from a barrier island onto the mainland, following difficulties defending it from the Timucua Indians. Shortly after this move, the first parish churches were established: Nuestra Señora de la Soledad and, slightly earlier, Nuestra Señora de los Remedios, the parish church of St. Augustine.

The sites of both churches, which were in use between the 16th and 18th centuries, have seen archaeological excavations over the years, including the discovery of numerous burials. La Soledad produced evidence of European, African, and Native American individuals buried in Spanish and British styles, while Los Remedios has European and Native American burials in Christian style.

New graves discovered during flood mitigation in January are being excavated this week by city archaeologist Carl Halbirt due to a planned expansion of a water main through St. Augustine’s Charlotte Street. Halbirt and his team found burials both under the cobblestone street and within what is now the Fiesta Mall, a small building in downtown.

Based on the majolica pottery inclusions, the burials date to 1572–1586 and were therefore almost certainly among the earliest made in St. Augustine. The style of burial is Christian, with the skulls oriented to the east and the arms crossed over the front of the body. The discovery of these graves also means that archaeologists have further physical evidence from Los Remedios, cementing its label as the oldest known parish church in the United States.

John Worth, an archaeologist at the University of West Florida who was not involved in the study, tells mental_floss that this discovery is immensely significant. “Not only do they contribute to an understanding of the church itself, the burials may provide an opportunity to learn more about Florida’s earliest European permanent residents, including perhaps where they originally came from,” Worth says. If the people unearthed were indeed founders of St. Augustine, Worth notes, their skeletons may reveal “the struggles of life during the first two decades of the city’s earliest history.”

Analysis of the remains themselves is only just beginning, but preliminary work by University of Florida anthropologist John Krigbaum suggests the people who were just found appear to be European adults. If the state allows destructive testing, further research will be done on samples from the skeletons to potentially investigate their geographic origins, diets, and any diseases they had. The burials themselves, though, may stay put under the floor or may be reburied at the historic Catholic Tolomato Cemetery.

For a look inside the excavation, check out the segment below from First Coast News.

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Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Utility Workers May Have Found One of Rome’s First Churches
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

The remains of what may have been one of Rome’s earliest Christian churches were accidentally discovered along the Tiber River during construction, The Local reports. The four-room structure, which could have been built as early as the 1st century CE, was unearthed by electrical technicians who were laying cables along the Ponte Milvio.

The newly discovered structure next to the river
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

No one is sure what to make of this “archaeological enigma shrouded in mystery,” in the words of Rome’s Archaeological Superintendency. Although there’s no definitive theory as of yet, experts have a few ideas.

The use of colorful African marble for the floors and walls has led archaeologists to believe that the building probably served a prestigious—or perhaps holy—function as the villa of a noble family or as a Christian place of worship. Its proximity to an early cemetery spawned the latter theory, since it's common for churches to have mausoleums attached to them. Several tombs were found in that cemetery, including one containing the intact skeleton of a Roman man.

Marble flooring
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma

A tomb
Romano D’Agostini, Giorgio Cargnel, Soprintendenza Speciale di Roma1

The walls are made of brick, and the red, green, and beige marble had been imported from Sparta (Greece), Egypt, and present-day Tunisia, The Telegraph reports.

As The Local points out, it’s not all that unusual in Rome for archaeological discoveries to be made by unsuspecting people going about their day. Rome’s oldest aqueduct was found by Metro workers, and an ancient bath house and tombs were found during construction on a new church.

[h/t The Local]

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Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Scientists Just Found the Oldest Known Piece of Bread
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen
Alexis Pantos, University of Copenhagen

An old, charred piece of long-forgotten flatbread has captured the interest of archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians around the world. Found in a stone fireplace in Jordan’s Black Desert, this proto-pita dates back 14,400 years, making it the oldest known example of bread, Reuters reports.

To put the significance of this discovery in context: the flatbread predates the advent of agriculture by 4000 years, leading researchers to theorize that the laborious process of making the bread from wild cereals may have inspired early hunter-gatherers to cultivate grain and save themselves a whole lot of trouble.

“We now have to assess whether there was a relationship between bread production and the origins of agriculture,” Amaia Arranz-Otaegui, a researcher with the University of Copenhagen, told Reuters. “It is possible that bread may have provided an incentive for people to take up plant cultivation and farming, if it became a desirable or much-sought-after food.”

A report on these findings—written by researchers from the University of Copenhagen, University College London, and University of Cambridge—was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It was once thought that bread was an invention of early farming civilizations. A 9100-year-old piece of bread from Turkey was previously regarded as the oldest of its kind. However, the Jordanian flatbread was made by a group of hunter-gatherers called the Natufians, who lived during a transitional period from nomadic to sedentary ways of life, at which time diets also started to change.

Similar to a pita, this unleavened bread was made from wild cereals akin to barley, einkorn, and oats. These were “ground, sieved, and kneaded prior to cooking,” according to a statement from the University of Copenhagen. The ancient recipe also called for tubers from an aquatic plant, which Arranz-Otaegui described as tasting “gritty and salty."

[h/t Reuters]

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