Sneak Peak: 15,000 Year-Old Pre-Clovis at Wakulla Springs

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Getting ready for the final photos of the excavation pit at the Paleo through Archaic period Wakulla Springs Lodge site.
Getting ready for the final photos of the excavation pit at the Paleo through Archaic period Wakulla Springs Lodge site.

Fall 2018 Sneak Peek By Tamara Jager Stewart.

15,000 Year-Old Pre-Clovis Sites Cluster at Wakulla Springs, Florida         Are These Evidence of Mastodon Kill Sites?

Great to see old friend and Paleo-Indian archaeologist Dr. Andy Hemmings as I follow him on his latest Paleo-research collaboration along coastal Florida. I first met him at Vero Beach where he was heavily involved with the Vero Man excavation, confirming the pre-Clovis antiquity of that site with project director Dr. James Adovasio and crew from Mercyhurst University.

Dr. Andy Hemmings demonstrating the artifact use as a counterweight for the atlatl.
Dr. Andy Hemmings demonstrating the artifact use as a counterweight for the atlatl.

Now it’s another 15,000-year-old, Paleoindian site that fascinates these scientists – more a series of sites clustered around the freshwater springs and river at the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, south of today’s Tallahassee along the Gulf. Working with lead researcher Dr. Jim Dunbar, who discovered and intensively documented the Page-Ladsen Pre-Clovis mastodon kill site just 25 miles away, they’re finding that these sites appear to be contemporaneous and to also both involve mastodons and ancient humans, though to what degree at Wakulla Springs remains a question they’re working to answer.

In 2012, Dunbar founded the non-profit Aucilla Research Institute (ARI) in 2012 to focus research and public education on this area. He is Principal Investigator of the Wakulla Springs project and Director of its Paleoindian and Early Archaic component; Hemmings serves as the project’s Co-Principal Investigator, directing the Paleo-Indian, Early Archaic, and Underwater components.

Director Jim Dunbar (middle) & Andy Hemmings (to his left)
Wakulla Springs Site Director Jim Dunbar (middle) & Andy Hemmings (to his left) checking the excavations in the final days at this site.

The primary area their group is working in is a pit on the edge of the Wakulla Springs Lodge Site, a Paleo-Indian site first documented in 1995 when a park archaeologist was conducting a small excavation near the Lodge and found distinctive Paleoindian and late Archaic tools and other items that date the site to at least 13,000 years ago.

Mold of artifact found earlier at Wakulla Springs Lodge site
Mold of artifact found earlier at Wakulla Springs Lodge site

The team has been excavating this pit since 2015. This day is one of their last days on site, so the researcher in charge of keeping everything on track quickly shoves me off to bother Hemmings with my questions, and not bog the crew down with distracting photo-ops and jokes as they try to wrap it up at the site. The excavation is easy digging in the sand, and the two men working down in the pit wear socks so as not to make too much of an impression. I assumed they switched off with the people that were taking the heavy buckets they had filled of sand and wheeling them over to their window-screens to sift for artifacts, but NO, they said. They like the consistency of the same excavators working the entire project, and these two gentlemen were the ones. While they have a great sense of humor and like to joke around, they are very serious and incredibly precise about their excavation, no messing around there.

The excavation pit at the Paleo through Archaic period Wakulla Springs Lodge site.
The excavation pit at the Paleo through Archaic period Wakulla Springs Lodge site.

And they get to dive! (Their eyes especially light up when they discuss this part of their research plans). Most of these folks have their diving credentials and will be involved with both the upcoming underwater component of the University of Georgia fieldschool they’ll be working with and the underwater sampling they hope to undertake later in the year in the ‘Bone Room’ – the vast, underwater cavern where the spring ejects and a high density of mastodon bones have been found, and two other locations farther down along the now-protected Wakulla River.

Edward Ball, real estate tycoon from the area, bought the property in 1931 and today it’s part-conservation part-recreation area as the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park, a concept that appears to work quite well, with families and teenagers flocking to the consistently-cool temperatures of the clear spring waters to swim and take turns diving off the high wooden tower above the spring, some 200 feet deep. The historic Wakulla Lodge is an amazing work of art designed by Edward Ball — an amalgamation of Spanish-Moorish and art-deco styles, with hand-painted cranes on the wooden panels of the grand reception room ceiling and the first indoor, mechanical hotel elevator in the world, built in 1937.

The historic Wakulla Springs Lodge today.
The historic Wakulla Springs Lodge today.

The State purchased the land when Ball died in 1981, and the Lodge is privately run to serve the tourists visiting the springs and hold many weddings and receptions. Three times a day guided boat tours are offered along the protected corridor of the Wakulla River, giving visitors a chance to see an incredible diversity of wild flora and fauna, an area otherwise closed to the public or anyone who isn’t directly involved with periodic maintenance there. The lush, green riverine setting with tropical vegetation and amazing wildlife is a sight for Southwest desert eyes for sure. The original Tarzan was filmed here back in the 1930s, and Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954. It’s a gorgeous place, I see why people love it here — kind of a hidden gem.

Egret on the beautiful Wakulla River

Egret on the beautiful Wakulla River

To work here would be heaven, I would think – aside from the oppressive humidity, which I’m not used to coming from the high desert. But it didn’t seem to bother them as they worked away in the shade of their covered pit, some of them taking a dip in the spring after lunch before resuming. They all clearly had their system down and were racing to meet their deadline, so I slowly backed away to bother Hemmings, tossing them the free hats and magazines and other Conservancy and American Archaeology paraphernalia I come with to thank them for their time.

Standing with Hemmings at the top of the wooden tower, we watch the jumpers and divers as they blast down into the deep, cool aquamarine spring waters and swim up like tadpoles triumphant. Hemmings excitedly points to the area where this fall they hope to bring their boats over and, from the shallower edge, they plan to conduct dives into the deeper areas to obtain samples where mastodon remains had been reported. “Fingers crossed!” He exclaims, holding his up. “We will get the permissions and permits we need to accomplish these tasks and answer these questions!” Stay tuned …Keep your eyes peeled for the full article  ‘Of Mastodons and Men’ in American Archaeology Magazine Fall 2018, hitting Newsstands next week.

Fine Screen shifting and sorting for the Paleoindian component of the site.
Fine-mesh shifting and sorting is done for the Paleoindian component of the site.

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