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Lower Suwannee Archaeological Survey

Lower Suwannee Archaeological SurveyIn 2009 the Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology (LSA) launched a new, long-term archaeological program in the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuges of Florida. The program is structured by a three-prong approach involving (1) reconnaissance, (2) rescue, and (3) research consistent with the comprehensive conservation needs of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Reconnaissance will fulfill agency needs for cultural resource inventory and assessment; rescue will target cultural resources facing imminent destruction; and research will provide the interpretive context for assessing the significance of cultural resources. The unifying goal of all aspects of the proposed program is development of detailed, long-term perspectives on cultural and environmental change, notably the effects of transgressive coastlines on the availability of inhabitable land and biotic resources of human importance.

The coterminus Lower Suwannee and Cedar Key National Wildlife Refuges of Florida (hereafter simply “Refuges”) comprise some 54,000 acres of federal land along a 30-mile-long stretch of the northern Gulf Coast. Like much of the coastline of Florida, this portion of the Gulf Coast is peppered with shell-bearing sites and other locations of pre-Columbian human activity. Unlike much of the Florida coastline, however, the Lower Suwannee is one of few river-delta estuarine systems in the U.S. that has not witnessed residential or commercial development in the modern era. Indeed, the Refuges exist to remove and protect such lands from ongoing development.

Lower Suwannee Archaeological SurveyCoastal locations in general have long attracted human settlement, and those of the lower Southeast were especially attractive for their rich estuarine and intertidal resources conducive to sustained human exploitation. But coastal dwelling in the lower Southeast has always been a challenge for humans because sea levels have routinely fluctuated with changes in global climate. The rate and magnitude of sea-level change has varied markedly over the course of human settlement. Since the time of human colonization at the end of the Ice Age, sea levels have increased a total of 100 m, flooding about half of the relict Florida peninsula. The rate of rise slowed sharply after 7000 years ago, and since about 4500 years ago sea level has fluctuated up and down a couple of meters in an overall rising regime. Sea level continues to rise today, arguably at rates that have accelerated over the past two centuries. Irrespective of the causes of accelerated change, modern humans have more than passing interest in the long-term consequences of sea-level rise.

Lower Suwannee Archaeological Survey

Like other locales of the Lower Southeast, the Florida Gulf Coast is a relatively flat, low-relief landscape, subject to vast flooding with only minor rises in sea level. These same low-lying conditions are conductive to extremely productive estuarine and intertidal habitat. However, productive near-shore habitat is as vulnerable to transgressions as are places suited to human settlement when sea levels change even modestly in such low-relief terrain. The many submerged and intertidal sites of precolumbian age on the Refuges are longitudinal records of changing settlement and culture against the multi-decade and century-long rhythms of sea-level change.

Lower Suwannee Archaeological Survey

The 2001 Comprehensive Conservation Plan for the Refuges acknowledges that sites indeed hold great informational potential, while also recognizing the vulnerability of these sites to coastal erosion from the very processes on which they inform. Previous archaeological investigations in the Refuges have been spotty and we know little other than the region was home to scores of communities since at least 4000 years ago. Sites of this age and younger exist in a zone of subaerial exposure that is the modern tidal range. Perhaps more have been destroyed by erosion than are preserved today, but there remains a large inventory of shoreline sites with preserved remnants, plus a sizable inventory of sites in hammocks that are inaccessible by boat, even at high tide. Collectively, the inventory of archaeological sites in the Refuges is an enormously rich record of long-term environmental and cultural change that will ultimately be destroyed by shoreline erosion in the 21st century. The new program of sustained archaeological investigation by the LSA addresses both the conservation and research aspects of this vast archaeological record.

A technical report of the 2009-2010 investigations is available here.

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Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology

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Laboratory of Southeastern

1112 Turlington Hall
PO Box 117305
Gainesville FL 32611-5565
Phone: 352.392.6772
Fax: 352.392.6929