Bone hunter gives update on Nature Coast digs

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By Mark Scohier, Staff writer

With an eye toward the seas, archaeologists working in the Nature Coast continue to make haste in understanding ancient cultures in the area before it's too late, and all that work against the clock is starting to pay off.

"The goal of our project, among other things, is to salvage the archaeological record," said University of Florida Archaeologist Dr. Kenneth Sassaman Saturday to a group of about 50 people gathered at the Cedar Key Community Center. "After five years, we're starting to accumulate a pretty robust record."

The Lower Suwannee Archaeological Survey began in 2009, with researchers from the University of Florida hoping to glean knowledge from evidence not yet swallowed by continuously rising seas. 

The area, according to Sassaman, had surprisingly little evaluation of the archaeological record, and researchers now hope to evaluate as much as possible along about 47 miles of coastal area within the Suwannee River Delta. So far, Sassaman said, 13 sites have been excavated.

"The area will be, at some point, completely destroyed, except for the high areas, the dunes," Sassaman said.

People continue to dispute the causes behind sea level rise and to what degree, if any, humans have contributed to that, he said, but there's no disputing that the waters are getting higher.

Saturday's talk was a yearly update by Sassaman, and he addressed several relatively recent discoveries at various sites in the area.

Cedar Key's Shell Mound, the largest Native American structure of its type to still stand in the Gulf, was first evaluated by UF's Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology with digs in 2012, he said. The mound, constructed of thousands of years of shell deposit by natives, is, among other things, characterized by an open C-shape.

Shell mound is just one of many such structures in the area to have this shape, Sassaman said, and it's still not understood, explaining that the shape could have been of architectural, spiritual or cosmological significance.

It is clear, however, that the man-made island was the center of activity in the area, he said.

The base of the mound dates to between 1,500 and 1,800 years ago, though there's evidence below that of activity as far back as 4,000 years ago. Organic matter found suggests that people were living on the 5-acre island, Sassaman explained, adding that he hopes upcoming digs in July will show evidence of post holes or walls. He said he believes people were living at the bottom of the C-shape and up on top of the shell ridge.

"We still need more testing, though."

On another island, the identity and location of which Sassaman couldn't go into, teams have found scores of shell beads, most dating from about the time of European contact.

"There's lots of it," he said, and archaeologists find this significant because this type of bead was highly prized by Mississippian cultures, such as the mound-building people in the Ohio region. "It looks like we stumbled onto a factory."

On Komar Island, a place widely scattered with artifacts, digging has unearthed shell caches previously unseen.

"Often, they contain shell (gastropods) we don't (typically) find in the midden," he said about the island finds. These caches could be natives storing raw materials for beads or tools, or they could be votive offerings, which could reveal more about the spiritual views and practices of the people there during that time.

On Butler Island, which is dominated by a parabolic-shaped sand dune, the team found a 2,000-year-old pottery sherd stamped with a design that links it in some way to the Swift Creek groups of Native Americans.

Sassaman said the Swift Creek people were influenced by Hopewellian culture, better known for their mound building in the midwest region of the United States.

On McClamory Key, the team salvaged the remains of 32 natives whose graves were being eroded by rising waters.

The team is still waiting on the results for age dating purposes, Sassaman said, but evidence suggests the graves were relocated thousands of years ago.

The team found only skulls and long bones, he said, adding that his theory, for now, is that the people there moved their relatives in anticipation of rising seas.

Although rising seas have become more of an issue in recent years because of the speed at which they are inundating certain areas, levels have been rising for thousands of years.

Twelve-thousand years ago, when archaeologists say humans first began to move into the northern Gulf region, the shoreline, because of a lower sea level, was about 124 miles west.

"They were relocating their past to their future," Sassaman said about the relocated remains, adding that it was possible the natives were using time-space mapping, which uses the position of the sun relative to land and sea, to help in picking places to relocate.

"It makes modern humans look silly," he said, explaining that people today think mostly only as far as the economic market or election cycles.

For more information about the study, visit the project's website at lsa.anthro.ufl.edu/projects/lower_suwannee_fs.html.