Florida Archaeology Month Highlights Mississippian Period, Risk of Sea Level Rise

Mar 20, 2017

The Florida Public Archaeology Network is celebrating Archaeology Month in Florida, with a focus on the prehistoric Mississippian Period.

The observance also includes an exhibit on the impact of sea level rise and the local launch of a new volunteer monitoring program to track changes to at-risk sites in the state.

This year, Florida Archaeology Month, which continues throughout March, wraps up a series on prehistoric periods from Paleoindian to Archaic and Woodland.

The theme for 2017 is “Engineers of the Mississippian,” which highlights the last prehistoric period before the Europeans arrived in North America.

“It dates from about 1000 AD to 1600 AD,” said Mike Thomin with FPAN. “It’s when Native Americans began to live in more centralized villages, more sedentary, more permanent societies more politically and socially, had a lot more structure and really characterized by the “mound building” culture throughout North America.”

Locally, the best example of this time period is the Indian Temple Mound in Fort Walton Beach. Other sites include the Lake Jackson Mounds near Tallahassee and Mound Key near Fort Myers Beach.

Not surprisingly, much of Florida’s archaeological history is vulnerable to the state’s 800 miles of eroding coastline.

That brings us to the traveling exhibit titled “Florida Heritage at Risk” that’s now on display at FPAN’s Destination Archaeology Resource Center Museum, managed by Thomin.

Sea level rise map showing threat to Florida's coastal archaeological sites.
Credit Florida Public Archaeology Network

“What it looks at is how sea level rise is going to actually impact archaeological resources across our entire state,” Thomin said. “What we’re seeing with global warming and how it impacts archaeological sites today is it appears to be much more rapid. And, because it’s much more rapid, it causes this erosion of material instead of just putting it under water.”

To highlight the threat, the exhibit includes a map of Florida, with red dots - representing the sites that would be impacted by just a one meter increase in sea level. Those red dots form an almost solid line along the state’s eastern seaboard.

“In the state of Florida, if that happens, over 16,000 sites will be impacted,” said Thomin listing archaeological and historical sites such as historic buildings and structures and cemeteries among the state’s cultural resources that are potentially under threat.

As an example of one of those threatened coastal sites, the exhibit also features a display and two-dimensional image representing The Shell Bluff Landing near St. Augustine.  It was a prehistoric Native American midden (trash) mound. During the 18th century British occupation, a water-well made of coquina block was constructed on the site.

Photos of The Shell Bluff Landing near St. Augustine before and after Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Credit Florida Public Archaeology Network

Thomin says about a year ago, FPAN staffers recorded images showing the well was barely visible at ground level. Then, in October of 2016, Hurricane Matthew struck. About a week after the storm, staffers returned to check on the site.

“And, it was really dramatic,” said Thomin, referencing the storm’s impact on the well. “If you look at the pictures that they have online, a year ago the well was below the ground, whereas today a good meter of it is sticking above ground.”

With so many sites that are threatened, archaeologists could use help documenting them; thus, the creation of the citizen science program Heritage Monitoring Scouts, known as H-M-S Florida.

The program was started by FPAN’s Northeast office in St. Augustine; the local Northwest office hopes to launch it soon.

For those who register, a little training is provided. Then the volunteers are sent out to record and monitor those archaeological sites that are listed as threatened by the 1-2 meter rise in sea level.

But, Thomin cautions participants will only document archaeological features and artifacts, not collect them.

“The data is really what we’re interested in because with erosion and sea level rise, one of the problems is that it really erodes sites and destroys them, in essence,” Thomin said. “So what we want to do is collect that data and information before it’s gone forever.”

Interested individuals can sign up for the HMS Florida program via a kiosk at the “Florida Heritage At Risk” exhibit, which will be on display at FPAN headquarters in downtown Pensacola through the end of April or find a link to the FPAN website.