Modern Man's Love for Coast Is Nothing New Archaeology Talks Cover Early Settlers

By Barker-Benfield, Simon | The Florida Times Union, February 27, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Modern Man's Love for Coast Is Nothing New Archaeology Talks Cover Early Settlers


Barker-Benfield, Simon, The Florida Times Union


Whether in condos with tar-sealed roofs or in palmetto-thatched cabins, people have liked living along the Georgia-Florida coasts in settled communities for at least 5,000 years.

In fact, a rough rule of thumb for figuring out where the first inhabitants of the region liked to live is to look at where people are living today from Savannah, Ga., to Miami.

Even paved-over Miami?

"People have probably been living in that area ever since there was a Miami River, we are probably looking at maybe 5,000 [years of human settlement] -- at least in that general vicinity," said Ryan Wheeler, an archaeologist with the Department of State's Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee.

Wheeler has been investigating the Miami Circle, a series of holes cut in limestone, which created an international furor when discovered last year. He will discuss the circle at the upcoming series of three Saturday lectures on archaeology being held on Big Talbot Island between Saturday and March 18 as part of Florida Archaeology Month.

What was desirable real estate way-back when is desirable now, especially if it is well-drained and near water.

"High ground -- quote 'high' in Florida being a very relative term -- that's not too far from water," said Nancy Marie White, associate professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida and co-editor of Grit-tempered: Early Women Archaeologists in the South-eastern United States, published last year by the University Press of Florida. She will discuss her book March 11.

"And this is why we lose so many archaeological sites in Florida so fast, because that is where every developer wants to build," White said.

"If you go just about anywhere in the Southeastern United States near reliable water and near level ground that is well-drained you will find evidence of human occupation," said Kenneth Sassaman.

Sassaman, assistant professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Florida, is an expert in early hunter-gatherer societies of the Southeast.

Sassaman kicks off the lecture series Saturday with a look at his re-investigation of Stallings Island in the Savannah River.

The site has piqued the interest of archaeologists since 1873 because of the sheer volume of artifacts found there and because of their great age.

So many burials were discovered on the island that early scholars believed the island was a necropolis -- an island dedicated to burials, said Sassaman, who calls his presentation "Return to the Island of the Dead."

The Stallings Island culture stretched north to South Carolina and down the Savannah River valley to the coast and then south as far as about Cumberland Island.

Stallings flourished between 1700 and 1500 B.C.

The culture produced pottery some 2,000 years before pottery was widely used in the region, said Sassaman.

Specialists also have been able to examine more than 75,000 bones from vertebrates recovered from the site, which have enabled them to build a detailed picture of Stallings Islanders diet, which depended heavily on white-tailed deer, turtles, catfish and sunfish. The food was cooked by heating soapstone, which resists cracking from heat, and then dropping the cooking stones into pots.

Then after some 200 years the culture inexplicably faded away, maybe after its members returned to a more nomadic hunter-gatherer life, which, Sassaman figures, was quite attractive: A good life could be had with about 20 hours of work per week, he estimates.

While Sassaman will describe the findings of his studies, White will concentrate on the often-ignored contribution made by earlier generations of women archaeologists, which is the theme of "Grit-tempered," -- a play on words to describe a technique -- grit tempering -- used in the production of some pottery.

"We thought there weren't very many women in that early period.

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