JACKSONVILLE — It's a nothing-special grass parking lot in LaVilla, on the edge of downtown. But the members of a fledgling group called the Cowford Archaeological Research Society see it as something quite grand.
To them, this nondescript patch of land is beginning to look like the site of a lost Union fort, built in 1864 just outside the city walls of old Jacksonville.
They've dug, and they've found intriguing items from that era, including what they say is a nicely preserved shell casing for a Spencer rifle, which was used by Union troops.
Exciting stuff. But for members of the mostly amateur archaeological group, there's a mystery in the city's vast northern marshes that they think could be far older and even more important. But it's going to take bit of a hike to get there.
This is some serious jungle: Dean M. Sais and George Burns, founders of the Cowford group, handed out plastic leg coverings, to guard against snakebites. There was extra water. Sais went ahead, urging his four companions to stay 10 meters apart: "If you hear me yell Ow! — run like hell. That means yellow jackets." Burns whacked away with a machete.
The 20-minute walk passed uneventfully. And soon, they were standing by their discovery.
Right on the edge of one of the countless marshes in that area, it has four earth and oyster-shell walls, roughly rectangular, perhaps 6 feet high at its highest.
In one corner, there's an opening. Could it have been a door, or is it just natural erosion? Inside the walls, the ground is low and muddy, and trees are growing up from the mud. In all, it's about 115 by 80 feet.
Sais got a tip from a hiker who told him about the strange find in the woods. After struggling through mud and thick vegetation, he saw it for himself.
The find intrigues Sais and Burns, though they don't know what it is — other than to say that it's definitely man-made. They can't know until more research is done.
Burns is a registered professional archaeologist, with a master's degree in the field from Colorado State. Sais has worked for decades as a contract archaeologist, and he has a business selling tools of the trade.
The site in the marshes could very well be something quite mundane. But they wonder: Could it be the earthworks of a fort ordered built by James Edward Oglethorpe, the British founder of Georgia, in preparation for his failed 1740 siege of the Spanish in St. Augustine?
"They've been looking for it a few hundred years," Sais said. "We think we've found it."
Archaeologists dream of such discoveries. And as Sais, 60, likes to say: "Everywhere you walk in Jacksonville, history's under your feet."
At the LaVilla site, searchers have found perfectly intact glass bottles used for medicines. A Union soldier's uniform button. A fancy crystal handle and nice ceramic pieces that might have been used by officers.
Recently, out came two telling finds: First, the casing for the bullet for a Spencer rifle. A short while later, up popped a metal rod with a circular handle. It was most likely used to clean the fuse hole of a cannon.
In LaVilla, they took clues from an 1864 map of Jacksonville, which had the location of "Ft. Hatch," just outside the city walls. They figured out where it might be today, asked permission from the landowner, and dug a few holes, each carefully mapped and logged. Everything that's found at the LaVilla dig — or the possible marsh site — will be given, Sais said, to the landowners.
No one's getting paid. Not Sais or Burns or the eager amateurs who pitch in to dig.
The Cowford Archaeological Research Society — named after an early, descriptive name for Jacksonville — began in April. It's a nonprofit group that has dreams of one day starting a museum and having schoolchildren and the disabled helping on their digs. Corporate sponsorship would be nice, too.
At the LaVilla site, Dave Gentkowski, retired from the Navy, brought his son, Lorenzo, 12, for a field trip. They pitched in, digging and sifting — and signing Cowford membership cards. Gentkowski grew up near the Manassas battlefields in Virginia, which sparked in him an interest in archaeology. He once found a trigger guard for a musket, and a neighbor found a U.S. Cavalry belt buckle.
Lorenzo said he was happy to be there. "I was hoping I'd find a cannon," he said.
"Confederate gold," said his dad.
That sense of discovery drives the searchers, who look past the humble parking lot and see a bustling Civil War fort.
"There's enough work for us to do for the next 10,000 years" is another thing Sais likes to say. And he and his amateur volunteers are just getting started.