Local History Buffs Commission Repainting of Timucuan Images; 16th Century Depictions Don't Stand Up to Scrutiny by Scholars

Article excerpt

Byline: Matt Soergel

For a long time, many serious people looked at some ancient European engravings and thought: Yes, that's what life was like for the 16th-century inhabitants, French and Indian, of a marshy part of what would become Jacksonville.

Archaeologists, scholars and museum curators believed this. One student even wrote an entire thesis on the tattoos on the natives in the old illustrations.

It's not like there's much other actual evidence of what that time and place was like, after all.

So academics and authors were willing, perhaps, to overlook details that seemed a little off - the Florida mountains rising up in the distance, for example, or the big human ears on an alligator so super-sized it could star in its own Syfy network movie.

In the past decade, though, there's growing thought that there's much more wrong than right in the engravings of old Fort Caroline. Perhaps, some say, artist Theodor de Bry made them up completely.

"I am going to assume we have been duped," the University of Florida's Jerald Milanich wrote in a 2005 article in Archaeology magazine.

De Bry's works, he lamented, were not what so many researchers had thought - a "miraculous portal to the past."

A Jacksonville Beach-based environmental group believes, though, that some new paintings can open that time portal just a crack. Perhaps wider.

It commissioned 10 artists, chosen after a nationwide contest, to take de Bry's engravings and, basically, fix them.

They came up with brand-new paintings that incorporate actual Florida landscapes - de Bry never left Europe - and modern scholarship on the area's original people and animals.

Consider de Bry's depiction of a native village - a tight cluster of native huts huddled inside high walls. That was so wrong, in so many ways, said Keith Ashley, a University of North Florida archaeologist who's spent years digging in the area.

He much prefers the new version, which shows a native village sprawling next to a saltwater marsh, free of any high walls.

"The actual environment looks like Florida. The plants look like Florida, like a village on a barrier island," Ashley said. …


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