David Hurst Thomas, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, spoke at UGA in November about his search for Georgia's lost Spanish missions. It was a fascinating discussion, detailing how myths work thier way into our culture and outlining how and why archeology remains a very important corrective:
Thomas began the lecture by discussing California, which he said is greatly influenced by its Hispanic history. Californians view St. Junipera Serra as the founding father of California. The Carmel Mission holds St. Serra's library and his cell. Visiting the site of Carmel is what made Thomas want to be an archeologist.
But the items at the Carmel Mission are fake, what Thomas called "a created reality to sell the mission myth."
Sir Harry Downie reconstructed the area to fit the idea of the Ramona myth.
"Growing up and having an interest in history and archeology, I was really turned on by the Ramona myth," Thomas said. "This turned it into not only archeology, but a whole way of life. Who needs archeology when you've got Ramona to give you your past?"
Thomas began to wonder where Georgia's Hispanic heritage was. Georgia had more Spanish missions and friars with missions that began earlier than in California.
"There is not one place that you can walk up and touch the 16th or 17th century in Georgia," Thomas said. "That history has evaporated in the public mind. How good could those missions have been if we can't even find them?"
This attitude was prevalent when Thomas began his archeological research on St. Catherines Island in 1974.
Thomas' visit and Signature Lecture was designed to commemorate the transfer of a major trove of artifacts to the UGA Laboratory of Archeology recovered by Thomas and his team on St. Catherines Island. This collection itself and what it implies about Georgia's past underscores this truism shared by Thomas:
"It's not what you find," Thomas said about the importance of archeology. "It's what you find out."
Image of St. Catherines Island courtesy of the New Georgia Encyclopedia.