Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Outdoors

At Weedon Island lab, piecing together the past

RECOMMENDED READING


ST. PETERSBURG — After more than four decades of archaeological work, Bob Austin can't handle the Florida summers like he used to.

For years, he loved digging into the ground and excavating multi-thousand-year-old artifacts. But now, at age 68, Austin's body limits most of his work to the other aspect of archaeology, the one spent indoors studying the artifacts, compiling data and piecing together history to uncover what life looked like thousands of years ago.

That Austin is able to do this with ancient, mostly broken pieces of pottery or stone tools is what has drawn him to archaeological work for his entire professional life. He doesn't need to be outside digging, even if he'd prefer to be.

"One of the things I've always liked about it was that you have that fieldwork part, but you also could involve your brain and your intellect," Austin said. "What really keeps bringing me back is trying to figure stuff out."

One of 11 board members of the nonprofit Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education (AWIARE), Austin is an expert on lithic technology, or how ancient stone tools were made and used. He received his Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Florida in 1997.

Austin still consults for his former employers, private archaeology companies around Florida, while volunteering for AWIARE. The alliance gets most of its funding from individual donations and the occasional grant.

Many of the rooms at the AWIARE lab on Weedon Island are filled with old artifacts — spearheads, shards of pottery, animal bones. Some are laid out on a large table, a collection of items donated over the years to AWIARE and the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

Austin and the lab's other volunteers are organizing the artifacts so they can compare them to items already stored in the lab. That process will help uncover where the donated items came from and perhaps clarify what purpose they served.

One of the volunteers at the lab, Penny Seabury, is cataloguing a collection of documents belonging to local archaeologist Lyman Warren.

After Warren died, his family donated his massive collection of artifacts and papers to AWIARE. Seabury's goal is to create a digital version of the collection that will allow other archaeologists to access Warren's work.

AWIARE's biggest project, and the one that garnered the most publicity, was the excavation of an 1,100-year-old canoe on a Weedon Island Preserve beach. In 2011, Austin and Phyllis Kolianos, another AWIARE board member, led a trip to remove the 40-foot canoe from the ground in pieces. Austin said he also worked with designers to set up the canoe's display, located in the Cultural and Natural History Center.

"It was our really big project," Austin said. "And that's what got us publicity and got us funding."

An artifact as monumental as the ancient canoe is an anomalous discovery; most of AWIARE's work involves items of lesser significance. But they each offer a glimpse of Florida's prehistoric era. Austin's job is to figure out what the shards of pottery or worn-down stone tools might reveal.

That process is tricky for even the most experienced archaeologists. Interpreting old artifacts and data such as measurements and locations requires a large amount of guesswork. But the results can be revealing.

"It helps you understand how different cultures, people who belong to different cultures, lived," Austin said. "That there are differences between cultures, but there's also a lot of similarities."

One advantage of archaeological research that is different from other methods of studying history is its capacity to reduce historical bias, Austin said. While those in power often dictate what is remembered, they have little say in what gets discovered thousands of years later underneath the ground.

"History is written by the winners," Austin said. "And history is slanted. People forget things, or they don't want to talk about certain things, or they want to slant things a certain way."

To express this point, Austin likes to use an adage from the late Florida archaeologist Calvin Jones: "The dirt don't lie."

   
Comments

Captainís Corner: Get ready for gag grouper migration

With falling water temperatures and bait fish making their way into the near shore waters off of the coast, we can expect the fall migration of gag grouper to be in full swing with the next two or three cold fronts that make their way into the centra...
Published: 11/18/17
Updated: 11/20/17

Captainís Corner: As visibility improves, so does spearfishing

Spearing in the Gulf of Mexico is improving day by day. First, the underwater visibility is getting much better. For more than a month, after Hurricane Irma, the offshore water clarity was so poor that most divers stayed home. The water is now much c...
Published: 11/17/17
Updated: 11/18/17

Captainís Corner: Snook bite remains aggressive

We are in the midst of prefrontal conditions, so there should be good fishing today. Bait seems to have moved on the last full moon and judging by the amount of bait fry that has filtered onto the flats, it spawned also. Load up the wells with the sm...
Published: 11/17/17

Captainís Corner: Calm seas closer to beaches rewards with kingfish

Strong east winds have made it challenging for offshore anglers. The first few miles are quite tolerable since the land buffers the shoreline. After that, sea conditions have been tougher. Anglers searching for kingfish have been rewarded with calm s...
Published: 11/16/17

Captainís Corner: A little wind doesnít stop hot fishing in November

Despite many windy days, November fishing has been amazing. The water is cooling off, and the fish are becoming more aggressive. Itís getting to be the time of year when the cold fronts start to make their way out of the north. When this happens, win...
Published: 11/15/17

Captainís Corner: Fly fishing success possible, even in wind

When your day to fly fish arrives, do you hope for a day without wind? Knowledgeable fly fishers know there are many ways to deal with different wind situations. Avoid open water, and select an area that offers protection. Stay close to shore and use...
Published: 11/12/17
Updated: 11/14/17

Captainís Corner: Low tides and cold fronts make for rewarding fishing

Fall and winter low tides combined with cold fronts passing through can lead to highly rewarding fishing. It takes winds blowing 20-plus miles an hour out of the northeast combined with an astronomical low tide around the new moon and full moon phase...
Published: 11/12/17
Updated: 11/13/17

Captainís Corner: Reef fish abundant offshore; mackerel, kings better near shore

Before this recent cold front, we were able to travel where we wanted, and the calm seas allowed us to make the mistake of running past the best depths for our type of fishing. The 40- to 50-foot depths produced almost nonstop action from reef fish, ...
Published: 11/12/17
Captainís Corner: Mackerel still going strong in bay area

Captainís Corner: Mackerel still going strong in bay area

The fall king mackerel run is still going strong. The fish have seemed to come in waves; one week there are numerous fish more than 30 pounds, and a week or two later no one can find any more than 20. It also seems the fish are not moving south all t...
Published: 11/11/17

Captainís Corner: Cold front should push fish into backcountry waters

The approaching front is forecast to drop temperatures for a couple of days. This should push more fish into the backcountry rivers and creeks that feed the bay. Once the front passes and the weather stabilizes, fishing should return to normal. This ...
Published: 11/10/17