Friday, December 23, 2011

Archeology Dig

I have always been interested in archeology and history especially the people who lived before the Europeans came to the Americas. I experienced the Mayan culture and their ancient pyramids while we were living in Belize. When we were going across country, we visited the Effigy Mounds in Iowa which were build by the Mississippian Culture about 1000 years ago. Last summer we visited the Florida Natural History Museum in Gainesville. We learned about the history of the Calusa people and saw many of their artifacts. There was a woodpecker carving that caught my imagination. I also wondered what it would be like to be an archeologist.

I wanted to know what it would be like to help dig on at an archeological site. The museum in Gainesville had a dig that people could help out with on Pine Island. It’s only about 20 miles from our house as the bird flies but unfortunately cars can’t swim across the bay, so we had to go the long way around Charlotte Harbor which took about an hour and a half. Pine Island has a very artsy and crafsy village, and a lot of mangrove trees. There was only one stop sign that we saw on the whole tranquil island.

We arrived at the parking lot of the Randell Museum fairly early in the morning. We walked into their main office which was an old house that was destroyed by Hurricane Charley and had been recently renovated. The house had pine paneling and flooring which fits with the name of the island quite well. We met some very nice people and about five minutes later, I was sifting away. There were two huge pile of dirt. One had already been sifted through and the other had not. We took scoops of unsifted dirt and poured them onto the sifting table. Since the sifters had a mesh bottom, all the dirt fell out leaving chunks of cracked shells, pottery shards, bones and many other Calusa artifacts. When we shook the tables, a mushroom cloud of dust rose into the air and made everybody run away or get dusted out.

I helped a really nice lady named Pat and we found some bones. These bones were probably from a fish or small mammal. We put them in a collection tray for cleaning and sorting. Next, I found an otolith which is the hearing bone of a fish. I identified that otolith to be from a catfish because of its shape. The principle of an otolith is that when sound vibrations travel through the water and hit the otolith, it vibrates inside a nerve lined sac of tissue. The nerves around the otolith then sends a signal to the brain which the fish senses as a sound. As I sifted some more, I found some pottery shards which were two different colors. There was terra cotta color clay and dark brown color clay. The Calusa had to trade to get the terra cotta color clay which was a better quality. I found a shark tooth tool which is apparently pretty uncommon at this site. My Dad also found a shark tooth.

The find of the day was a carved piece of either deer bone or shell that confused everybody before we realized what it was. Some people thought it was plastic, but I took a piece of shell and tapped it, and I didn’t think it sounded like plastic at all. Later we found out that it was a rattlesnake carving and it was the first piece of art found on the site which has been worked since 2006. The rattlesnake carving probably came from the Mississippian Culture and had been traded from as far away as Ohio which has its own Serpent Mound. This is not a big surprise since both cultures built large mounds. All and all, we spent about 5 hours of cleaning, sorting, shoveling, shaking, sieving, coughing from dust, and discarding the waste shells and rocks.

We then explored the nearby Calusa mounds and walked all over the site. We found a nice napping area because of the shards of chert. There were some trails that led us up the mounds which had a good view of the bay and the other mounds. There was a little similarity to the Mayan pyramids but the mounds were a little less grand. I was wondering what it would be like to be a Calusa before the Spanish invaded. I thought it was really cool to do archeology and I want to do it again. That’s all for now from the Nudibranch Network.


  1. It was sooo much fun to share that experience with you Sophie. I had a great day and very proud to see you blogging about what you learned!

  2. Wow Sophie, I really heard your voice in this entry. What an amazing experience. And what a find..that cool rattlesnake carving. Really neat!

  3. It must have been really exciting to see that carving. But, why is it a rattlesnake carving?

  4. Your account of your archaeology dig is so so interesting Sophia - not only are you a naturalist and an ornitholigist - you're a natural born writer! Can't wait for the next armchair experience! Heather - p.s. happy new year!!!!!!!

  5. Posted for Karen Walker:

    Hi, Sophie, I very much enjoyed reading your blog about your archaeology experience at the Randell Research Center. (I am an archaeologist associated with the RRC [Pine Island] and the Florida Museum of Natural History [UF-Gainesville]). How very exciting that you were among the group who found that artistic shell artifact! It is a very important find and is one of a very few (not the only one) artistic pieces found at Pineland. As for the rattlesnake idea, my bet is that many ideas will emerge about what is depicted. For example, I think I see parts of two animals, a manatee and a sea turtle facing each other with their "paws" touching. We will never fully know the story behind the artifact but we do know that it came from Pineland's "BCM4" which stands for Brown's Complex Mound 4. We also know that it dates to somewhere between A.D. 1200 and 1500. The reason we do not have a narrower estimate of its age and know little else about it is because the pile of material which you were sifting was dug out by construction workers employed by a private homeowner (some parts of the Pineland archaeological complex are not under the protection of the Randell Center). Much of Mound 4 was destroyed so that foundations and a large septic drainfield could accommodate a large, new house on top of Mound 4. (It is a sad reality that property owners are allowed to destroy the archaeological heritage of the Calusa Indians.) Archaeologists use trowels and dust pans when they excavate and painstakingly record everything that they see as they go, a slow process that can take months and years. The result of the archaeologist's work is much knowledge; objects/samples, etc. are found in "context" which provides answers to questions like -- was the artifact/sample associated with a house? inside? outside? was it the house of a high-status individual, perhaps a leader? or was it in a trash pile? with pottery known for a specific time period? with certain animal bones? shells? Because that part of M4 was destroyed, none of this information is known because the context was lost forever. The Randell Research Center at Pineland, UF's Florida Museum of Natural History, the State of Florida, and Lee County all work in partnership to save as much of Pineland's Calusa mounds as possible so that everyone can appreciate and learn from them. They are like sacred books in a library; they are just about the only records of a vanished, proud Calusa people who once ruled over all of south Florida. So, thank you, Sophia, for helping to sift through that precious pile of mound material -- even though it is "out-of-context," it is important to learn from it, what we can. (P.S. It is possible to radiocarbon-date that beautiful artifact, requiring that a small amount of shell powder be removed [from the backside] from it to be analyzed. The analysis would be expensive [about $600] to do but Dr. Marquardt, who is Director of the Randell Research Center, is considering it.) I hope we can meet sometime, either at the RRC or FLMNH. Calusa Heritage Day is Saturday March 10th at Pineland. I'll be there and I hope you will be too! Karen

  6. Sophie, having participated several times during digs at the Pineland site pre 2004, I commend you on your significant and very amazing find. Congratulations. The staff at Randall Research Center and those people affliated with The Univ. of Florida--Dr. William Marquardt and Dr. Karen Walker--are all wonderful and insightful people dedicated to the history and archeology behind the Calusa Indians. I'm happy you had a very worthwhile experience and best of luck with future endeavors.