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Saint Catherine's Island Historical Exhibit
Friday, September 03rd, 2004, 7:55 PM

Today Saint Catherine's Island is home to a diverse collection of wildlife and an ecosystem unspoiled by modern man. In the sixteenth century however, the island was home to the Mission Santa Catalina de Guale, Georgia's oldest known church. Soon artifacts from the mission will be available for public viewing at Atlanta's Fernbank Museum of Natural History.


Artifacts discovered by David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Natural History in New York, were transferred to the museum in Atlanta earlier this year for inclusion in Mission Santa Catalina de Guale exhibit. A preview will be available from October 2nd, 2004 to January 2nd, 2005, however the exhibit will not officially open for another few years.


Nearly a million artifacts recovered from the mission in the seventies will be available for display.


The press release from the Fernbank Museum:


May 12, 2004—Atlanta—In 1981, a group of archaeologists announced the discovery of a lost mission site abandoned more than 300 years earlier on a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Through three years of excavations and the research that ensued, lead archaeologist, Dr. David Hurst Thomas, quickly realized the impact of their findings.


Between 3000 BCE and 1680 CE*, St. Catherines Island, Ga. saw a fusion of world cultures as the Natives, Spanish, Africans and British all passed through this 14,000-acre island, 50 miles south of Savannah.


Now, as the recipient of the incredible collection of artifacts amassed through these excavations on St. Catherines Island, Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta is poised to unfold the history of the island’s early inhabitants, the first Spanish settlement in Georgia, and the emergence of a uniquely Georgian culture that blended Hispanic and Native American elements.


Donated to Fernbank Museum by the St. Catherines Island Foundation and Edward John Noble Foundation, the Collection includes more than one million objects, many from excavations in and around the lost Mission Santa Catalina de Guale. One of the first missions established by the Spanish, Santa Catalina (St. Catherines) is the site of the earliest church in Georgia, and one of the earliest in North America.


“This Collection is priceless in terms of historic knowledge and research potential,” said Susan Neugent, President and CEO of Fernbank Museum. “Something of this magnitude is larger than words or monetary value. The pieces in this collection enter a new chapter in world history and present the artifacts to back it up.”


As a result of nearly 30 years of extensive research led by Dr. David Hurst Thomas, Curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, St. Catherines Island is perhaps the most intensively-investigated, best-understood aboriginal landscape of the American Southeast. St. Catherines Island, now privately owned by the St. Catherines Island Foundation, is regulated by a land management program that focuses on research and conservation, leaving the Island essentially undeveloped.


Without the barriers of buildings, roads and business, the site was well preserved and archaeologists could proceed without interference. The huge Collection gives a new perspective on the early inhabitants of the island, the Guale, as it breaks stereotypes about the aborigines, the early missions and the Spanish.


“History is about multiple voices,” Dr. Thomas said. “Archaeology can give a new voice to groups like the Africans and the Native Americans, who didn’t leave many written documents. This Collection is providing us with hands-on history about the intercultural origins of Georgia beyond the conventional narrative of history books.”


Unique and intrinsically valuable, the St. Catherines Island Foundation and Edward John Noble Foundation Collection is of the highest academic quality and effectively rewrites world history relative to the settlement of North America.


“The Guale people colonized the landscape in a different way than we ever thought before,” Dr. Thomas said. “The first human footprint on St. Catherines was made about 5,000 years ago. These were not a nomadic, starved people. We now see that they were living in villages and were healthy – probably the healthiest people who have ever set foot on the island, including us.”


In addition to shedding new light on the aboriginal landscape of Georgia and the Southeast, this Collection also provides a new point of view on the mission system of the United States. Although American history has focused little on it, the Southeastern mission system was founded earlier, involved more people, and lasted longer than the Southwestern system so familiar to Americans.


Because the Southeastern mission system has not been historically well-documented, the excavations and the resulting Collection give a new perspective on the state of the Americas at the time of European contact. The reports by the British colonizers largely overlooked and demeaned the contributions of their Spanish competitors. But the archaeological discoveries on the Island tell an enormously important story about human culture and the early cross-cultural roots of our national narrative.


With the discovery of the lost mission of Santa Catalina, the unwritten history of the Southeast was pieced together, one artifact at a time, as archaeologists saw traces of the early contact between two cultures from opposite ends of the world. Among the earliest artifacts represented in the St. Catherines Island Foundation and Edward John Noble Foundation Collection are Native American spearpoints (3000 BCE-1000 BCE) and examples of the earliest pottery known from North America. Known as the Guale people, the Native Americans living on the Island at the time of the first European contact were introduced to Christianity by Spanish Jesuits and ultimately by Franciscan friars. Excavation of trade beads, rosary beads, crucifixes, religious medallions and jewelry mark the influence on the Guale by the arrival of Europeans, who used the objects to establish sacramental links to the Natives and symbolize the religious trappings of Catholicism, some items which were hand-crafted in the Vatican. Rosaries were especially prized because of the highly-valuable beads.


The trade bead collection from St. Catherines Island is the largest ever assembled, numbering roughly 75,000 “early” 16th/17th century beads. Some of the trade beads, manufactured around 1450-1550 CE, are the type described by and are identical to those transported by Christopher Columbus. Other objects recovered from the St. Catherines mission site include 200 metal artifacts, such as jewelry, religious medallions and decorative furnishings; 150 bronze bell fragments; 3,500 iron artifacts; as well as textiles, glass vessels and “chunky stones” used to play a popular indigenous game.


“A collection of this magnitude and importance would be transformational to any museum, and the case is no different for Fernbank Museum,” Ms. Neugent said. “This collection fits perfectly within our mission and lays the groundwork for many objectives set forth in the Museum’s long-term strategic plan.”


As a key element of the programming emerging with the acquisition of this Collection, Fernbank will expand upon the story of the first human arrival in Georgia within A Walk Through Time in Georgia, a permanent exhibition that entwines the twofold story of the transformational development of the Earth with Georgia’s natural history and its modern geographic regions. The St. Catherines Island Foundation and the Edward John Noble Foundation Collection also provides artifacts and other materials that will be incorporated into the final galleries of this exhibition to communicate the importance of being good stewards of the Earth. Employing the coast and barrier islands dioramas, the exhibition dovetails into the historic and the present stories of Georgia to fully educate visitors.


Additionally, the Collection offers the Museum the opportunity to expand its research program and opens the door for Fernbank Museum to work with the American Museum on future excavations on St. Catherines Island. After a full conservation is completed, the Collection will be accessible to qualified scholars for on-site research.


“The full significance of this collection, which documents a long-lost cultural legacy of the first Georgians, will soon become apparent to Fernbank’s established and growing audience of all ages – school children, families and scholars,” said Jeremy Smith, Co-chairman, St. Catherine’s Island Foundation and Vice-Chairman, Edward John Noble Foundation. “In this regard, the Museum’s ongoing commitment to education and the advancement of scientific research reflects the very goals of the trustees of the Noble Foundation and the St. Catherine’s Island Foundation.”


The Island offers the opportunity for more archaeological discoveries as well, which ultimately can grow the Collection further. Dr. Thomas considers it an “ongoing endeavor” and does not consider the work on St. Catherines Island to be complete in any sense. Many colonies dating to the Africans, the Spanish and the Natives have still not been found but are suspected to be in the general area of St. Catherines Island. With time, funds and more research, Dr. Thomas hopes some additional questions will be answered.


During an official announcement on May 12, a sample of the Collection was unveiled and will remain on view at Fernbank Museum of Natural History through mid-June, giving the public its first glimpse of the Collection.


President Jimmy Carter, whose interest in the history of Georgia and St. Catherine’s Island is apparent in his recent book set in the American South, The Hornet’s Nest, addressed the audience with his thoughts and observations on the importance of the Collection.


“I recommend strongly that you not only support this great institution here – Fernbank – but also learn a little more about Georgia’s history, not only archaeologically but politically – and from a religious point of view,” Carter told the group of nearly 300 attendees, closing with the thought of “how the totality of factors that shape our lives are really inseparable.
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