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Uncovering the Lost Indigenous Town of Sarabay

"Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.” ~ John Muir
Excavation Site at Sarabay

Who Were the Mocama-Speaking Timucua?

I was first introduced to the University of Northern Florida Mocama Archaeological Project when my husband, Jim, and I attended Dr. Ashley's lecture at the Amelia Island History Museum last December. As I listened, I became fascinated by this lost piece of our area's history, and it piqued my curiosity about these ingenious people. Soon, I was on a mission to learn more about UNF's efforts to understand the daily lives, cultural practices, and history of the Mocama-speaking Timucua.

According to the UNF website, little was known about Timucua towns until 1998, when UNF conducted over 550 shovel tests unearthing indigenous pottery dating back to the sixteenth and seventeen centuries and some even further. Early documents written by the French and Spanish describe the Timucua town of Sarabay and provide hints about its location. Documents also suggest that the Mocama-speaking Timucua Indians were the first indigenous people encountered by the Europeans in the 1560s. Research has shown that the word Mocama is a native word, which translates to "the sea," and was the Atlantic coast dialect spoken by Timucua in northeast Florida and southern Georgia.

The earlier excavation of Big Talbot in 1998-1999 uncovered a section of a wall trench not typically seen in this area. Underground pits were found and some contained charred corncobs within the cavity. Multiple artifacts, pottery, and olive jars shards led the team to believe they had found a segment of Sarabay dating between 1560 and 1620.

UNF Archaeology Lab

University of Northern Florida

We began our fact-finding journey in 2023 by visiting the UNF Archaeology Lab on campus. Dr. Ashley explained that the "function of the lab in the student's education is invaluable." The department offers hands-on experience in both laboratory analysis and fieldwork. The students learn to catalog and analyze materials such as pottery, stone, and bones in the lab using quantitative and qualitative methods. We found ourselves surrounded and in awe by the thousands of pieces of materials and artifacts collected, all neatly placed and cataloged.

Tools made from shell and an ornamental piece

Students Maggie Alley and Kaia Lacey

Dr. Ashley gave us a lab tour and explained the history behind each item he showed us in detail. We enjoyed visiting with students Maggie Alley and Kaia Lacey, who were happy to explain what they were working on. Using her trained eye, Maggie quickly identified a piece of a turtle shell out of the multiple items on the table. Before leaving, I asked them why they chose to study archaeology. Kaia's answer was not what I expected and made me pause for a minute to understand her meaning. Kaia's said, "I study archaeology because it gives a voice to those that don't have one." Her answer helped me put the Saraby Project in perspective and better understand Dr. Ashley and his students' dedication to uncovering the past to share it with future generations.

Field School

After the initial excavation in 1998-1999, the UNF's Sarabay Project 2020-2023 returned to Big Talbot to learn more about this historical site. In June, we joined Dr. Ashely and his students for a day of field school. The course is a six-week practicum that allows the student to get hands-on experience in archaeological fieldwork. The students learn field techniques while enduring the Florida hot sun and buggy environment, but there were no complaints from this dedicated team of student archaeologists.

The Site

Jim on the path to the excavation site.

Dr. Ashley met us at the trailhead leading to the excavation site. The entrance quickly narrowed to a small path leading deep into the woods through dense vegetation covered by a canopy of tall trees and sprawling branches that filtered the sunlight through the leaves.

Suddenly a sense of mystery and adventure came over me as we entered the stillness of the forest. As we walked further down the path, I allowed my imagination to take over as I tried to visualize what this area must have looked like in the late 1500s in this ancient town of Sarabay.

Dr. Ashley talked before the workday began.

Upon arriving at the site, Dr. Ashley wasted no time getting to work. The students gathered around to discuss what they had learned and discovered up until this point in the excavation.

Jack, one of the students, shared that they believe the site dates around 1580 and 1620. They have found evidence of cultural interaction between the village of Sarabay and the mission in the area through the findings of various native pottery, pieces of olive jars, Spanish tableware, and even a glass bead. Another student stated they also found a fossilized animal bone which is an unusual find. Dr. Ashley reminded us that during these dates, there was no significant presence of Spaniards in the area. From what they know, there were only two Spanish priests, one on Cumberland Island, the other on Fort George Island, and around 100 Spaniards living in St. Augustine.

Students working at the excavation site.

After the team meeting concluded, the students quickly got to work. The excavation teams meticulously work in small units within grid coordinates as they carefully remove the layers of earth 10 centimeters at a time. Once the layers are removed, they are placed in buckets and moved to the sifter, where the loose soil is removed, hoping an artifact will be found.

Lee Ann enjoyed the task of sifting.

Jim and I spent some time sifting and were thrilled to find multiple pieces of pottery, believed to be San Marcos and a portion of an olive jar brought here by the Spanish. Holding a piece of 400-year-old pottery was a joy that is hard to describe and will not be forgotten. We were grateful that we could participate, if only in a small way.

We found several pieces of San Marco pottery and a piece of an olive jar used as a container by the Spanish.

The climate in southeast Florida is unlike other archaeological sites throughout the country. Stone and masonry seen in the southeast were unavailable to the Timucuan, so they used trees and palm fronds to build their homes and structures. Without standing structures, it challenges archeologists because the organic materials decay over time. So, archeologists look for changes in soil color and density to identify where structures may have been located.

The team thinks that the current site they are working on is believed to be a second structure to the one discovered in 1998. Within this current site, the organic stains found in the soil are thought to be where large poles once stood, anchoring a sizable structure. Dr. Ashley pointed out that as they marked each posthole with stakes, a pattern formed an arch, leading the team to believe they were probably working within an approximately 50 to 60 feet structure.

Stakes marking the postholes around the site.

This fascinating find has suggested that the structure's shape, potholes, pits, and artifacts, including a brass or bronze religious medal found in 2023, may have been a Council House serving the town. In the indigenous population, the council house served the communities as a public meeting place, recreation, and social events.

The town of Sarabay was last mentioned in the early 1600s and it is unknown what happened to its inhabitants. Did they leave and join other villages, move further within the forest, or, as some speculate, their heritage is still among us as part of the Seminoles and the Miccosukee? As the archeologist continues to uncover past secrets, I hope we find the answer to that question.

I appreciated learning from this important excavation and want to thank Dr. Ashley, his students, historians, and anyone passionate about uncovering our past.

If you want to learn more about this topic, I have included links to some resources you may enjoy.


UNF College of Arts and Sciences

UNF Archaeological Lab Website

Amelia Island History Museum- YouTube Channel

3rd on 3rd Lecture: "UNF Excavations at a 16th c. Mocama Community of Sarabay" with Keith Ashley


Sep 24, 2023

Thank you Lee Ann! Fascinating work by the archeologists & students. You have done a great job peaking my curiosity.


Jul 05, 2023

Thank you Lee Ann. Very interesting. You have more patience than I would have!! Tell Jim hello. Your friend,


Jun 27, 2023

This was awesome! Thanks for sharing their story and yours. I will show Steve, since this is his gig!! Keep up the good and very fun posts.


Jun 26, 2023

What an adventure. Sure that it was amazing to be part of this. I enjoyed reading and feeling the excitement you were feeling.


Jun 26, 2023

I enjoyed this adventure - learning what University of North Florida is doing now and what has already been discovered. Thanks for taking us with you!

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