Mapping the Past

How do you map the past in a modern city? When structures disappear into history and roads shift with time, where do you look? In the Spring of 1981, archaeologists – led by Dr. Kathleen Deagan – set out to answer some of these questions for St. Augustine. They aimed to map St. Augustine’s layout from the early 1500s. A vast documentary trail provided the general area, but did not include spatial relationships of houses, lots, lot elements, and streets.

A black and white aerial photograph of north St. Augustine featuring the Castillo de San Marcos and Mantanzas Bay.
An 1970 aerial view of the St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District’s northern border. (National Park Service)

The 1981 project looked to examine the St. Augustine Town Plan Historic District – which became a U.S. National Historic Landmark District in 1970. The district covered the street plan of the walled city between the 1500s and early 1800s. Its borders included: the Mantanzas Bay and Cordova, Orange, and St. Francis Streets.

Within this general region, Dr. Deagan came up with two hypotheses for the town’s layout (seen bellow). Hypothesis A approximated that the city’s blocks equaled 220 feet by 352 or 440 feet. This would make the town plan larger than shown on the 1589 Boazio Map. But, Hypothesis B estimated blocks of 88 feet by 220 feet and 176 feet – closer to Boazio’s and today’s maps.


Over a 22-week period, Dr. Deagan – with a team of students and archaeologists – tested her hypotheses. They selected nine sites across St. Augustine (seen bellow) to locate evidence – such as artifacts, structures, and wells. But why not look directly for the colonial roads?

Few accounts from St. Augustine’s early days include descriptions of the streets. Most mention how muddy they got during the rainy season, so the streets most likely consisted of compact earth. For archaeologists, dirt roads leave behind little to uncover, but household debris and wells give clues. Their presence, location, and age help identify sites’ functions.

A black and white map of St. Augustine's colonial featuring the locations of the 1981 test digs.
A map of the sites tested in St. Augustine’s town plan during the Spring of 1981.

Archaeologists – like Dr. Deagan – take these clues and available research to base their conclusions. Sometimes these answers shift and change with advancements in research and new findings. For Dr. Deagan in 1981, Hypothesis A – the “large town” – held the most evidence in her project. Whether correct or slightly off, her methods and results provide a stepping stone for future archaeological projects looking to map colonial St. Augustine.

Learn more by reading Dr. Deagan’s report “The Town Plan of Sixteenth Century St. Augustine: The Archaeological Evidence” in the University of Florida Digital Collections.

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