Maybe it's time for a seance. Really, Keith Ashley and Robert Thunen have tried everything else. They're archaeologists at the University of North Florida. They spend days looking for 16th century artifacts, dreaming about a lost fort along the St. Johns River, wondering about an elusive artist. What they may need to clear up an old Florida mystery is a Ouija board.
They need to conjure up the ghost of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues and make him talk. Sit the sorry ghost of a Frenchman down. Shine a light in that wispy cloud of a face.
"Where's Fort Caroline? You helped build it in 1564. We know we're close, but we can't find it. Can you give us a hint?''
Easy questions in the first round, served up with a cafe creme and a beignet. He may need his strength to answer the difficult questions coming in round two — the questions about his art.
Generations of archaeologists and historians have credited Le Moyne with making the first drawings of Stone Age culture in Florida. Reproductions of his native chiefs and native hunting parties and native ceremonies hang in history museums throughout the South. They're in all the textbooks.
Le Moyne's 42 illustrations have served as kind of a Rosetta Stone for archaeologists and historians. When they want to know what the natives were like at the time of the European invasion, they go to Le Moyne. But questions linger.
"Why is there a mountain in a Florida painting?''
"Why is a Florida medicine man drinking from a South American seashell in this illustration?''
Ask him with an edge in your voice:
"Did you really do these paintings? Or did somebody else just make them up?''
Le Moyne died in 1587. He took his secrets with him. If only archaeologists carried Ouija boards.
• • •
Keith Ashley's most important tool is a shovel. He's 47, dark-haired and athletic. He has an archaeology doctorate from the University of Florida. He mentors young people who start out wanting to be Indiana Jones.
In the movies, archaeologists battle villains, swing on vines and brush tarantulas off their shirts. Real archaeologists who work in the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve near Jacksonville dig holes. Many holes. All day long as the yellow flies bite and the mosquitoes swarm.
During the seance, ask Le Moyne:
"As you helped build a fort in the Florida wilderness, did you swat and swear? Were you afraid of snakes?"
Archaeologists in the 21st century toil in a forest of oaks, pines and cabbage palms near a river marsh where the great blue herons squawk. A shovel bites into ground: A young archaeologist, supervised by Ashley, digs a precise 1-meter hole. Another combs through each clump of dirt with care. Maybe he'll discover a fish-bone projectile point, a slab of broken pottery or something that will prove that the Frenchmen — including Le Moyne — were here.
The archaeologists want to find evidence of the Timucua (Tim-moo-kwa) natives who occupied South Georgia and northeast Florida at the time of the European invasion. The French colony lasted from 1562 to 1565.
Le Moyne, the alleged eyewitness to the early encounters between the cultures, frequently weighs on Ashley's mind. In his laptop computer he stores Le Moyne illustrations both fascinating and frustrating.
Like many archaeologists, Ashley once trusted Le Moyne.
"It's hard not to have problems with him.''
• • •
The man of mystery is born in Dieppe, France, about 1533. His trail then vanishes for 30 years. In 1564, Le Moyne is a crewman aboard the Ysabeau on the second French expedition to the New World. Le Moyne is a Protestant, and in France Protestants are persecuted by Catholics. The Huguenots, as they are called, hope to establish a colony for Protestants on the other side of the Atlantic. And while they're at it, they'll claim anything they find for Mother Country, especially gold.
Nobody knows what Le Moyne looks like. A self-portrait has never been found. We're unsure about his job in Florida. Making maps, perhaps, or drawing pictures. Maybe grunt work.
On June 30, 1564, the French colonists begin building a fort on the river. They don't completely trust the natives, even though they seem friendly enough, and they certainly fear the ferocious Spaniards who have been making excursions into La Florida since 1513 and are now establishing a colony south at St. Augustine.
Years later, an illustration of the fort will emerge, credited to Le Moyne. It depicts a triangular fortress with walls constructed of dirt and timber, large enough to house 300 people, barracks and cannon.
The fort — and Florida — becomes a hellhole for the newcomers. It's hot and buggy and snake-infested in the summer, freezing in the winter. The colonists are incompetent hunters and fishers. They're hungry and homesick. There is no silver, no gold. The Spanish are out there, plotting.
Some French settlers declare a mutiny, jump on a ship and go looking for food. They're caught by the Spaniards.
Now their Spanish enemies know about Fort Caroline.
In September 1565, the Spanish admiral, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, attacks from the land with 500 Conquistadors. It's a complete rout, a terrible slaughter: The Spaniards slit throats and lop the heads from about 200 men. Only women and children are spared, though a handful of Frenchmen, including Le Moyne, escape into the woods during the carnage.
In the seance, ask Le Moyne:
"Did you stuff your illustrations carefully into a satchel before fleeing for your life?''
Menendez burns down the fort.
Le Moyne and other escapees somehow link up in the woods. There is no record of how they find a ship and return to Europe.
• • •
We know nothing of Le Moyne during the next 15 years. In about 1580, though, he shows up in Elizabethan London as an artist famous for his detailed watercolors of plants and insects. Sir Walter Raleigh, an aristocrat and poet, is a patron.
"How badly did you need money?''
A Flemish engraver, according to historians, contacts Le Moyne about publishing an illustrated account of the French expedition. Some historians speculate that Le Moyne turns down Theodor De Bry. Still another story has Le Moyne's widow selling De Bry her husband's papers after his death in 1587.
In 1590, De Bry publishes his first illustrated book. It's about a 1585 expedition to Virginia. It's such a hit De Bry decides he will publish a series of such volumes. Volume II, published in Latin and German, is A Brief Narration of Those Things Which Befell the French in the Province of Florida in America. It features narration by explorers and illustrations by the late M. Le Moyne. Europeans can't get enough.
The illustrations, as engraved by De Bry, are performed in what art historians might call a "mannerist" style, popular with other Renaissance artists at the time. The natives look more Greek and Roman than Stone Age native. Still, much of the work features titillating savage violence complete with decapitations and scalpings. In addition there are amazing depictions of hunting and cooking and everyday life.
For decades European scholars study the work and applaud. Le Moyne!
Finally, in 1946, author Stefan Lorant publishes The New World, translating the Le Moyne book into English and introducing the illustrations to Americans. Le Moyne! Now he is an inspiration to American archaeologists.
• • •
In 1972, the history revisionists begin picking on Le Moyne.
In New York, an archaeologist wonders why a Timucua headdress in a Le Moyne illustration looks more like a hat worn by an ancient Amazonian.
Someone else questions weaponry inconsistent with artifacts known to be Timucuan.
There is also the famous 25-foot alligator. It has ears.
"Le Moyne, you're a detail guy. How could you give alligators ears?''
In 2005, a crusty University of Florida archaeologist, Jerald T. Milanich, writes a muckraking article, "The Devil in the Details," for the magazine Archaeology, questioning whether the illustrations were done by Le Moyne — or by the engraver De Bry.
"I am afraid there is no Rosetta Stone, no miraculous portal to the past for Southeastern archaeologists,'' Milanich writes. "Until someone finds an actual, documented Le Moyne drawing or painting of Florida Indians, I am going to assume we have been duped.''
"What about it? What do you think happened to your original Florida illustrations? Were they burned by the Spanish? Or did they ever exist?''
He still has his defenders, notably Miles Harvey, author of a Le Moyne biography, Painter in a Savage Land.
Harvey, who teaches creative writing at De Paul University, wonders whether the vanished Le Moyne illustrations actually do exist — perhaps in an Englishman's library, folded up, tucked inside dusty books, just waiting for an art historian or the right archaeologist to make the discovery.
"Did they exist, Le Moyne? Or did Theodor De Bry do the illustrations after you were dead and credit you?''
• • •
Robert Thunen, the University of North Florida archaeologist, often visits a lovely park minutes from downtown Jacksonville. It's a refuge from Florida strip shopping malls, fast-food eateries and the look-alike chain pharmacies across the street from each other.
For the archaeologist, the Fort Caroline National Memorial is a place of mystery. Over the last decade Thunen has searched virtually every inch of the 133-acre park for the presence of Fort Caroline. He and colleagues have dug holes, examined fish bones and broken pottery, swore, prayed and wished they could conjure up Le Moyne.
"The fort isn't there.''
It has to be nearby, though. Maybe it's outside the park boundaries, in the back yard of one of those luxury homes, under a swimming pool where the kids pretend to be sharks after school.
"Here's what makes finding the fort a challenge,'' Thunen says. "It's not a medieval fort like in Europe, built of stone or steel. They made it out of earth and the trunks of trees, organic material. That stuff decays.''
Thunen once told students: "The day we find Fort Caroline you can shave my head.''
That was in 1996. He's 57 now, thinner on top. "When they find Fort Caroline, when they shave my head, they'll have a less worthy trophy.''
There is a replica fort on the grounds — based on the Le Moyne illustration as engraved by De Bry.
Ask Le Moyne:
"How close are we?''
Ask Le Moyne:
"Can you tell us about the other ghosts here?''
For more than 10 centuries the Timucua dominate land and water. They fight and bleed, dance, have children, chant, kill enemies and are killed in return. But the sun rises the next day as always.
Then, in 1562, they see a ship's sails on the horizon. It turns out to be a French ship. Later the Spanish are the occupiers. The Spaniards want the Timucua to give up their culture, learn the Spanish language, serve the crown. Be good Christians.
By 1620, Timucuans are in trouble. The younger ones are losing their ability to tell their people's stories in the native tongue.
As the decades go by, measles and smallpox, European diseases from which they lack any immunities, kill native people by the score.
A census is taken in 1689. The Timucuan nation, which had numbered in the thousands in 1562, is down 98 percent.
In 1717 only 250 are known to survive.
In 1763, when Spain cedes Florida to the British, settlers withdraw to Cuba — bringing with them the last few Timucua people remaining on this earth.
"Did you have any idea you were witnessing the beginning of the end? A genocide?"
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8727. His latest collection of essays is "Pilgrim in the Land of Alligators."