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Archaeologists documenting endangered sites before it's too late

For several years now, archaeologists across the country have been focused on sea-level rise and other threats to cultural heritage sites. The Florida Public Archaeology Network or FPAN is leading the effort to collect critical data on some of the more than 16,000 at-risk sites in the Sunshine State.

This monitoring will help with efforts to preserve what they can and document those sites that eventually will be lost.

On this day, FPAN Executive Director Bill Lees and members of his team are working in the field at Pensacola Beach, monitoring changes to a dune complex along Santa Rosa Sound.

“You see over there, that big chunk with the trees on it, it’s ready to go,” declared Lees, pointing to a ravine that’s been carved into one of the dunes.

Dangling above the path is a cluster of tree roots that have been left exposed by erosion, due in part to hurricane-related storm surge and people walking on it.

“So, I imagine five years ago, that was still there and now it’s a deep gully. Every time it rains hard, it just washes down there. And, it’s continuing to chip away at the site over time.”

The concern is that eventually, this eroded dune could completely collapse, taking valuable archaeological artifacts down with it.

“We’re trying to understand what’s going on here. The next question is, is there something we can do to slow it or stop it,” Lees said, as he acknowledged that this particular site where they’re working is just one out of thousands along the Florida coast that they’re trying to get a handle on.

One of the biggest threats to the state’s cultural heritage and archaeological sites is sea-level rise, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA forecasting a one-meter - or 3-foot - rise in sea level by the year 2050.

In 2014, FPAN created the Heritage Monitoring Scouts (HMS) program, a citizen-science initiative, where trained volunteers assist in documenting endangered coastal sites. The next training session, conducted online, will be Nov. 18 from 7-9 p.m.

In 2018, FPAN received a Florida Department of State Special Category Grant to fund more in-depth study using the HMS Florida program. But, with the pandemic limiting volunteer assistance, FPAN archaeologists across the state spent much of the last year or so doing the work.

“We went to over 500 sites to verify their location and their current conditions. We didn’t find all those sites, but we tried to locate them and get current information on them,” Lees stated.

“We also did about a dozen, where we did this really detailed laser scanning to totally document the site, so we have at least a 3-D model of what it looked like at one point.”

“It’s amazing what’s out there. You know, I think we monitored 50-60 sites just in Northwest Florida,” said Mike Thomin, who’s on the staff at FPAN and also serves as a faculty research associate at the University of West Florida. “We did work out in the Gulf Islands Fort Pickens area. But, we also did a lot of state parks, like Blackwater River State Park.”

Thomin says the Northwest region, alone, is home to all sorts of interesting sites and artifacts, covering numerous periods in history.

“Of course, a lot of indigenous sites; Native Americans were here first for a very long time, so there’s quite a bit of that material. When we were on the Ft. Pickens area, there’s a Civil War battlefield site there. There’s stuff from WWII. There’s a colonial Spanish site there in the Ft. Pickens area.”

In the Blackwater River State Forest, Thomin pointed out that there’s a lot of evidence of the region’s early 20th century Turpentine Industry.

“The turpentine industry was huge around this area. And, it has a whole, really kind of sad, dark history to that with the prison labor camps. So, when you find those turpentine cups out there, those are related to that part of our history in the state of Florida,” he said, adding that many people in the state don’t know a lot about how that prison-camp system functioned and how it primarily targeted African-American men.

To date, FPAN’s monitoring program mainly has focused on coastal sites due to the threat from sea-level rise. But, the recent increase in the frequency and intensity of storms — due to climate change — have put sites at-risk beyond the shore.

“Like Hurricane Michael devastated towns 60 miles from the coast,” said Thomin of the Category-5 storm that caused catastrophic damage in the Florida Panhandle region in 2018. “And, with (a storm like that) it also includes things like historic structures, historic cemeteries were impacted as trees were uprooted and caused really significant damage to cemeteries and archaeological sites.”

Weighing in, FPAN Director Bill Lees notes that when he took the job some 15 years ago, his main challenge was protecting archaeological sites from development. While development is still a threat, he says there are now laws that help.

“But, climate has become the bigger issue, and there’re no laws that protect us from the climate,” he proclaimed. “There’s no review process, there’s no funding, there’s no responsibility for someone to do something about it. Development, we have a handle on, in a way; climate, we just don’t.”

According to Lees, it a “huge undertaking!” But, with their ongoing monitoring program, they’re working on it.

“By looking at conditions of sites, we can begin to see where the problem areas are and then try to figure out what to do with that knowledge.”

Moving forward, Lees says the result could be development of strategies for preservation or recovery of critical information before it’s gone forever.

“This is important to preserve our history,” Lees declared. “And, you know, in 100 years, will we be able to tell the story of the people that lived here 1,000 years ago and that does now require us to do a lot of work.”

In a future report, we’ll look at some of the great technology, such as laser scanning, that’s helping archaeologists document endangered sites across the state.

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