Acclaimed UF Archaeologist Kathy Deagan Resurrects Societies Long Lost to History
By Cathy Keen
Kathy Deagan's childhood memories include
being chased through the streets of Taiwan by local boys
trying to pull her exotic-looking blonde hair.
Experiences like that were common for the
University of Florida archaeologist as her family traveled
the world, following her Navy meteorologist father to places
like Guam and the Philippines where he studied tropical
Deagan maintains that being the new kid on
the block - at least 22 moves through high school by her
count - fostered an early interest in different cultures
and social organizations that proved invaluable in her pursuit
of centuries-old mysteries about the European settlement
of the Americas.
"It was always hard the first or second
week of school deciding whom to sit next to in the cafeteria,"
says Deagan of adjusting to her constantly changing schools.
"I wonder if the constant newness made me more interested
in cultural differences."
early experiences may explain Deagan's ease in relating
to all kinds of people, from villagers and landowners to
legislators and scientists. That, along with grit, a keen
intellect and a special brilliance in interpreting the past,
propelled her to the top of the field of historical archaeology
by her early thirties.
The earliest European settlement in the New
World. The oldest symbol of Christianity found in the Western
Hemisphere. The first refuge for free blacks in what is
now the United States. To these exciting discoveries, Deagan
recently added an impressive accolade: the 2004 J.C. Harrington
Medal from the Society for Historical Archaeology. The award
is presented for a lifetime of contributions to the discipline.
"This award typically goes to people
who are close to retiring or have recently retired,"
says Bonnie McEwan, one of Deagan's former students and
now archaeology director at the Mission San Luis in Tallahassee,
who nominated the 57-year-old Distinguished Research Curator
for the award. "But I honestly couldn't think of anyone
in the field of archaeology who had accomplished more than
Kathy at any age. A lot of people commented that Kathy getting
the award raised the bar of who would be eligible."
The close-knit camaraderie of shared fieldwork
and laboratory experiences first drew Deagan to archaeology.
But as one who loves crossword puzzles, it is the challenge
of unraveling clues to old mysteries that keeps her fresh.
"In many areas, archaeology contains
the only available information about the past and about
certain cultures," she says. "Certainly for Native
Americans, who have no written history, and for everyone
else, there are a lot of aspects of who we are and how we
got to be who we are - some of these daily life questions
- that can be answered only by looking at fragments from
the material world."
The project she is most proud of in her distinguished
career is Fort Mose, where runaway slaves established the
first legally sanctioned black town in North America. Fort
Mose's story of freedom won even while slavery existed is
now incorporated into fourth-grade social studies textbooks
thanks to her groundbreaking work on the small marshy island
just north of St. Augustine, and more than 7 million Americans
have seen the traveling exhibit she and her team created.
town of St. Augustine knows her. She worked there
for so many years, digging in people's backyards.
She brought the history of their town to life."
- - Darcie MacMahon
"It really has shifted the view of the
American past, which for us has been more important than
pot shards or dirt stains or just the archaeological aspects
of the site," she says.
The initial response included some political landmines for
Deagan and her crew. "We were accused of making up
documents and planting artifacts just to do revisionist
history," she says.
Jane Landers, a former Deagan graduate student
who is now a history professor and associate dean at Vanderbilt
University, says Deagan handled the criticism tactfully.
"She didn't back down to anybody and
she wasn't confrontational, but she was sure of her scholarship
and rested on it," Landers says.
Although she has been a trailblazer for women
in her field, Deagan is reluctant to attribute any past
career difficulties to gender, her students agree.
While a graduate student at UF, though, Deagan
and her mentor, the late anthropology professor Charles
Fairbanks, initiated a discrimination lawsuit against the
state of South Carolina. Deagan wanted to work on a bicentennial
project excavating a fort but was told that women were hired
only for the lab.
"They gave all sorts of reasons why women
couldn't work in the field - we can't drive piles into mud,
we can't tear down the engine of a steamroller and they'd
have to dig a separate latrine," she says.
The American Civil Liberties Union took up
the case and Deagan's application was finally accepted,
although by then she had taken another job.
Fairbanks, a former chair of the UF anthropology
department, was a major influence on Deagan. He was one
of the founders of historical
archaeology, which incorporates written documents as well
as artifacts from archaeological sites. It was established
as a formal discipline only in 1968, six years before Deagan
earned her doctoral degree.
"He had been working on the idea of the
archaeology of slavery, which no one had ever done before,"
Deagan says. "It was intriguing to learn that for slaves,
or any group of people who didn't write, no matter how many
historical documents you read, you really didn't know what
was going on."
Fairbanks advocated a shift from monumental
structures to backyard archaeology, and under his stewardship
Deagan excavated the 18th-century St. Augustine household
of an Indian woman and her Spanish soldier husband to see
what mix of customs was reflected in food preparation techniques,
crafts and other household activities that illustrate the
texture of their lives.
Deagan's work continues to reflect her fascination
with race, ethnicity and gender, and she encourages her
students to examine little-studied social aspects. One recent
graduate student wrote her dissertation on the role of children
in the archaeological record, examining artifacts that Deagan
had unearthed in St. Augustine.
"We usually talk about economy and occupation
and income, but it's becoming increasingly evident that
even children had an impact on shaping the material world,"
Deagan says. "They tell us about the values and conditions
that every single person had to go through to be a grownup."
Deagan was never able to incorporate children
into her own life, filled with so many excavations in the
Caribbean and St. Augustine, but in mid-life she married
wildlife ecologist Larry Harris, who has an international
reputation of his own, and became stepmother to his four
children, some of whom accompanied her on archaeological
digs as they grew older.
"I spent probably 25 years being in the
field at least six months of the year, and no one with small
children could do that," she says.
Working side by side in the field builds strong
student-teacher relationships, Deagan says. "You can't
be this remote figure in front of the classroom or even
a friendly figure in front of the classroom because you're
cooking and eating together," she says.
Known for her engaging, approachable manner,
Deagan commands respect from her students without having
to demand it.
"Here she was, this small young woman
running a class," says Charles Ewen, an anthropology
professor at East Carolina University who received his Ph.D.
from UF in 1987. "Many of her students weren't that
much younger, and yet there was never any question as to
who was in charge. She exuded an air of authority."
Although she expects hard work from her students
- essays are routinely returned with a flood of red ink
- she rewards them afterward with some kind of party. One
wacky event that became an annual tradition involved students
in St. Augustine holding an end-of-dig "prom"
wearing formal attire from local thrift shops. Students
on Caribbean projects celebrated in other ways, once inviting
a National Geographic crew filming Deagan's work in Haiti
to attend a voodoo festival, says Jim Cusick, a former student
who is now a curator in the special collections department
at UF's Smathers Library.
Over the years, Deagan led a series of excavations
at En Bas Saline in Haiti, where she found what is believed
to be the vanished colony of La Navidad. There, Columbus
built a fort from the timbers of his ship the Santa Maria,
which crashed into a reef on Christmas Eve 1492. Her discovery
of a jaw from a European rat and a tooth from a pig, animals
unknown in the Americas before Columbus, were among the
But Haiti's military unrest following the
overthrow of the government in the mid 1980s made it difficult
for Deagan to continue her work, even though she kept her
cool during those turbulent times.
Once, when the roads to the site were too
dangerous to travel, Deagan called off work at the dig and
holed up with her students at a local hotel. While Cusick
paced, Deagan sat on the veranda reading a paperback novel.
"I finally asked her, 'Shouldn't we try to get out
to the site? It doesn't feel right to just sit around here
and read.' Dr. Deagan just laughed and said, 'Look, that's
what you do during a coup d'etat.'"
Deagan's lightheartedness off the field is
balanced by earnestness in following rigorous excavation
methods on it. When a Discovery Channel film crew documented
her search for the fort at La Navidad for a special that
aired last spring, they kept pressuring her to say on camera
that she had found the lost colony. But Deagan stubbornly
resisted, insisting they must first find a trench with charcoal
marks to confirm a fire described in historical documents.
Much to her amazement, they found the trench
that same day, which also happened to be during the last
week of the dig.
Deagan felt a different kind of pressure while excavating
Columbus' house at the Dominican Republic's La Isabela site,
the first European settlement in the Americas.
"Talk about holding your breath all day, being terrified
of missing something," she says. "You know there's
never going to be another site like that again."
Recognizing exciting projects, such as Columbus'
first settlement, is one key to Deagan's success, says Darcie
MacMahon, assistant director in charge of exhibits at the
Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus, who
worked with Deagan on the Fort Mose traveling exhibit and
co-wrote a book about the project.
"She picks high-profile sites, but really
the questions she tries to answer are much broader than
'Is this the first site?'" MacMahon says. "Her
objective is to understand how history happens, how people
lived in the past and what the interaction between cultures
That approach has influenced her students,
many of whom are making their own contributions to the field.
Landers has her history students at Vanderbilt read historical
archaeology, much of it Deagan's work, in addition to primary
documents because indigenous people and those of African
descent often are not reflected in written records.
"It really changed the way I train my
students, to have that background in historical archaeology
and to be so attuned to the material culture," Landers
Deagan was an important role model for Landers.
"I saw how she moved through different parts of the
professional world, from being in mud and muck in the field,
to being in a suit and conducting a press conference, to
dealing with all of her graduate students in such an encouraging
yet demanding way," she says.
The research Landers did for Deagan as a graduate
student in the archives of Seville, Spain, where she found
census documents containing the names of slaves who years
later were to establish Fort Mose, launched Landers' career
in ways she never anticipated. Shortly after earning her
doctorate, she published a paper about the subject in a
leading American history journal and later wrote Black Society
in Spanish Florida, recognized as the year's best first
book in Southern history by the Southern Historical Association.
The discovery of Fort Mose received international
acclaim when it was announced in a front-page story in The
New York Times. But excavations were halted a short time
later at the fragile site located atop a pile of old shells.
"Ultimately, excavating sites, even though
it's the funnest part, is kind of a last resort for archaeologists
because you're destroying the site," Deagan says. "So
in a way, I'm glad we didn't dig many holes. Fort Mose is
such a unique and precious place - it's almost a sacred
Fort Mose's stature may have played a role
in the National Endowment for the Humanities' decision to
select St. Augustine as the site for a news conference announcing
its new program "Landmarks of American History,'"
a series of seminars for school teachers around the country.
Deagan and former students Landers and Cusick were among
the experts teaching the seminar at Flagler College in St.
Augustine last summer.
Deagan gave the group a presentation about
Fort Mose and then led a tour of St. Augustine, pointing
out some of the sites she had excavated or interpreted over
the years. Frequently, she was interrupted by greetings
from local residents stopping to say hello.
"The entire town of St. Augustine knows
her," MacMahon says. "She worked there for so
many years, digging in people's backyards. She brought the
history of their town to life."
Indeed, the girl who never spent more than
a few months in any one place during her childhood has spent
her career helping St. Augustine and other places find their
Distinguished Research Curator, Florida Museum of Natural
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