Unearthing Georgia's Deep Cultural Exchange: St. Catherines Island

photo of shoreline with trees

St Cath teaser.jpgSt. Catherines Island, located in Liberty County, is one of the barrier islands along the coast of Georgia. The privately owned island, a National Historic Landmark, is about ten miles long and from the 1590s to the 1680s it was home to a Spanish mission, Santa Catalina de Guale.

David Hurst Thomas, Curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, will present a Signature Lecture Friday, November 17 at 3:30 p.m. in the Richard B. Russell Building Special Collections Libraries Auditorium. Thomas’ lecture, “Unearthing Georgia’s Deep Cultural Exchange: Still Digging on St. Catherines Island,” is free and open to the public. A reception will immediately follow the lecture.

St. Catherines Island is among the eight clusters of barrier islands off the coast of Georgia. The island is privately owned, with the Edward John Noble and the St. Catherine’s Island Foundations supporting the conservation of the island’s resources and the extensive research and education associated with them. The island’s diverse mix of ecological and cultural resources, and globally significant archaeological sites is widely recognized, as is its legacy of research, education, and conservation.

For over four decades, the American Museum of Natural History, supported by the Edward John Noble and the St. Catherine’s Island Foundations, has conducted archaeological research on the island. In 2005, the museum began a new program of excavation to conserve the most endangered archaeological sites of St. Catherines, which has continued to the present day.

Native Americans inhabited the island for over 4000 years. The Guale, the historically known native group that inhabited the northern Georgia Coast, were among the first peoples to meet Spanish explorers, colonists, and missionaries in the sixteenth century, as they began to explore what is now the southeastern United States. Jesuits and the Franciscan missionaries were present on St. Catherines Island in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Using remote sensing technology, Thomas and his team discovered the long-lost site of the Franciscan Mission Santa Catalina de Guale on St. Catherines Island and conducted major excavations. Thomas’ talk will explore the long term Native American history of the island and the nature of contact between the Guale and missionaries.

Thomas' visit and lecture was originally scheduled this past April to coincide with the large archaeological collection (valued at almost $14 million) from St. Catherines Island that was transferred for curation at the Laboratory of Archaeology. The St. Catherines Island Collection contains more than 109,000 cataloged artifacts, 2,650 radiocarbon samples, paleoenvironmental assemblages of animal bones, mollusk shells, and plant remains. The materials are accompanied by a comprehensive digital database that contains relevant field notes, photographs, catalogs, reports, and publications that relate to the excavations conducted on the island from 2005 to 2015. The university will also receive any future artifacts excavated on the island.

It's a treasure trove from the Georgia coast that documents the region's deep cultural heritage. That this great resource will reside at UGA is a testament to the university's Laboratory of Archeology, its faculty and staff. Congratulations to our archeologists and welcome to campus, Dr. Thomas.

Image: St. Catherines Island, via the Georgia Encyclopedia