Campus News

Archeologist details search for Georgia’s Spanish missions

Archeology answers history’s unresolved questions, according to David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. He spoke Nov. 17 as part of UGA’s fall 2017 Signature Lecture series. His visit was sponsored by the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and the anthropology department.

Thomas began the lecture by discussing California, which he said is greatly influenced by its Hispanic history. Californians view St. Junipera Serra as the founding father of California. The Carmel Mission holds St. Serra’s library and his cell. Visiting the site of Carmel is what made Thomas want to be an archeologist.

But the items at the Carmel Mission are fake, what Thomas called “a created reality to sell the mission myth.”

Sir Harry Downie reconstructed the area to fit the idea of the Ramona myth.

“Growing up and having an interest in history and archeology, I was really turned on by the Ramona myth,” Thomas said. “This turned it into not only archeology, but a whole way of life. Who needs archeology when you’ve got Ramona to give you your past?”

Thomas began to wonder where Georgia’s Hispanic heritage was. Georgia had more Spanish missions and friars with missions that began earlier than in California.

“There is not one place that you can walk up and touch the 16th or 17th century in Georgia,” Thomas said. “That history has evaporated in the public mind. How good could those missions have been if we can’t even find them?”

This attitude was prevalent when Thomas began his archeological research on St. Catherines Island in 1974. According to historians, St. Catherines Island had the most important Spanish mission with Mission Santa Catalina de Guale. People had been looking for Mission Santa Catalina de Guale for 300 years.

Thomas and his group of archeologists randomly sampled 20 percent of St. Catherines Island. They partnered with a group of people who were starting geophysics on the island. After five years, Thomas found the church and the buildings the Spanish people had originally used.

“It is a perfectly preserved Spanish mission, that it takes maybe an archeologist’s eye to recognize how beautiful this really is,” said Thomas. “It’s everything a Franciscan or a Spanish bureaucrat would want in the Spanish missions.”

To understand the way of life preserved in his finds, Thomas studied with Franciscans. They found a new story in the Franciscan community, including a different belief set that included a fourth vow of defending the immaculate conception.

The site has been reconsecrated as a symbolic, living church and has provided historians and archeologists with a different way of looking at early Georgia history.

“It’s not what you find,” Thomas said about the importance of archeology. “It’s what you find out.”