Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Recently, I took a trip to FPAN's Southeast Region to help document and create outreach materials on some of south Florida's least accessible - but most amazing - archaeological sites. I have never spent much time in the area, let alone studying the archaeology, and was totally blown away! Here's five of my biggest takeaways from the trip.

1. South Florida has so much amazing archaeology! (And so many amazing archaeologists!)

Crew of archaeologists checking out the map of Big Mound City.
Even as an archaeologist, I had no idea the number of amazing sites in South Florida. Furthermore, I had no idea how many were still around. I have an image of South Florida in my mind that consists of a lot of pavement, subdivisions and high rises. But not so! Even amongst the development, there's still a lot to learn. I also had the pleasure of touring around with archaeologists from Palm Beach County, Miami-Dade County, Miami University and Florida Atlantic University, not to mention my FPAN colleagues from the Southeast. I learned a lot from about sites throughout the area from everyone.

2. Miami has caves that have been utilized by people for thousands of years.

In a limestone solution hole - they can get quite big.
Well, maybe not quite caves. But underneath eastern Miami-Dade and Broward counties is a limestone bedrock that is unlike any other. Solution holes form in this bedrock from decaying plant matter and rain, and archaeologists have found a wide array of megafauna dating back to the Pleistocene in many of them due largely to the unique preservation. Much like shell middens, the calcium in the limestone helps preserve organic materials like bone. Archaeologists have also found that early humans would use these places. One of the sites I visited, the Cutler Fossil Site (click here for a blog for more info), contained evidence of humans going back 9700 years! And for all of the geology nerds out there, check out Florida Atlantic University's website on Miami limestone.

3. Palm Beach County has some of the largest and most unique earthworks in the United States.

Map of Big Mound City, courtesy of the Florida Anthropological Society
Out in the swamps of Palm Beach County, on the northern outskirts of the Everglades, people were moving some earth. A lot of it. And in very creative ways. One of the sites we visited, Big Mound City, covers 143 acres and consists of at least 23 mounds and lots of linear features and causeways. Not a lot of archaeology has been done at the site, but the main mound was excavated in the 1930s and contained practically no artifacts. This suggests the sites could have been built just for the architecture of them -- and impressive architecture it is. (More on Palm Beach County here.)

4. Archaeology happens by planes, trains and automobiles!

Our ride through the swamp!
Or rather, helicopters, air boats and swamp buggies. While the coast of South Florida is heavily developed and has great roadways, the interior of the state is still a lot of undeveloped land and can get very wet. In order to access some of these far off sites, archaeologists have to use some pretty serious transportation. At a recent lecture by Chris Davenport, archaeologist for Palm Beach County, he showed a slide of him using all of these modes of transport to sites. Unfortunately, I was only there for a few days to see a few sites, but I did get to ride on my first swamp buggy! Maybe next time, it'll be a chopper!

5. If people care enough, they can save sites from development, even in Miami.

Miami Circle Park in downtown Miami.
The Miami Circle is one of the greatest examples of site preservation. Archaeologists, community members, indigenous people and others rallied to save a small patch of of very expensive land in downtown Miami from becoming just another high rise apartment building. I've heard about the site for years but finally got to see it. While it doesn't seem like much, the meaning behind it is a lot. If they can do it in Miami, we can do it anywhere! You can take a virtual tour of the site on the Florida Department of State Division of Historic Resource's website on the site.

Signage at the site recognizes the hard work that went into the site's preservation.
Bonus life lesson - When South Florida tries to kill your equipment by overheating it, just put it on ice!
Batteries so hot the camera keeps turning off? Just put in a dry bag and drop into an icey cooler!
Words and photos by Emily Jane Murray, FPAN Staff, unless otherwise noted.

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