This video takes viewers on location to the Aucilla River in northwest Florida where Museum scientists search underwater for mammoth and mastodon fossils as well as other artifacts. Back in the Museum lab, scientists demonstrate and explain the process of making specimen casts.

The segment is part of the Museum’s Emmy Award-winning half-hour film, “Expedition Florida: From Exploration to Exhibition.”

The film plays in the Extinction Gallery of the Museum’s Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land permanent exhibition.

David Webb:  In 1968, when I first came up here on the river, it was a clear spring and in about an hour scuba diving I saw eleven skeletons of mammoths and mastodons. These sink holes in the bottom of this river are like a time machine. The sediments slowly stack up and each layer is a little chapter. And what’s neat from our point of view as explorers, is that those wet sink holes slowly backfilled as the ice ages ended and the record of those sediments included earliest peoples, extinct animals and this backfilling episode and that’s what we go in the river to excavate.

Here in the Wacissa River and in the Aucilla we’ve got about a dozen major sites and we’re continuing to work and daily find exciting new features about the earliest people. Then there was a 15 year lapse before we got back up here. The impetus was a bison skull with a spear point right in the frontal bone and part of a bison kill site. So it’s a paleontologist’s and archaeologist’s dream up here once you learn how to get through the water to the bottom.

Andy Hemmings:  This site, Sloth Hole, is a focus of my masters and dissertation research. We have both a mastodon butchery from around eleven thousand years ago and a camp site from around ten thousand years ago. All right the last bit of mapping of the contours of the unit will have to do we’ll start around unit 57 where the tusks came up and as we work to the north will cover the units where the worked ivory came from.

Joe Latvis: Seven and a half foot tusk that was recovered in intact sediments in another section of the Aucilla river here that ended up being seven and a half foot long and it was preserved exquisitely in sediments that had stained it golden orange color, and it was just a magnificent experience to be there as the excavators slowly uncovered the sediments millimeter by millimeter until this glorious tusk glowed orange in the otherwise dark water on the bottom.

Hemmings: Thrill of the discovery is everyday, always with us, because we are constantly running into either butchered bones of an articulated Mastodon or some of the other pieces, such as an ivory foreshaft fragment that we found just a few days ago.

Only one implement like this has been found west of the Mississippi, and here at Sloth Hole we’ve recovered sixty fragments that seemed to represent about thirty-five tools like this one. This example is 33.3 centimeters long, and when complete, would have been about 40 centimeters long, making it far and away the largest ivory object that’s been found in North America.

Webb: Some of the things that come out of the river are very special. The lithic points–like the Clovis points, the classic western ones–but then a lot of Florida varieties. Suwanee points, Bullen points, stuff through time that culturally it evolved. Also we get very special preservation of bones, ivory and wood that’s sealed off in the river sediments. When we first find them sometimes they turn brown on exposure to oxygen or sunlight but they’re beautiful.

Hemmings: All right, I got enough pigment now. I think it should match pretty good.

Latvis: Okay, looks good.

Hemmings: Being able to cast these things and distribute them to other scientists and share the information without having the object travel–it’s a very delicate object.

Latvis: Okay, looks like a good color match on the ivory.

Hemmings speaking to Latvis: We’ve just got to fill the barb right now. Okay, and if you can tap that and get the bubbles out at the end of it. Should run out a little bit but not too bad.

Hemmings: Well here we have a cast of a barbed ivory piece from very nearby. The barbed ivy piece is very important because, as far as we know, it’s unique and it’s clearly a point. It’s not part of the foreshaft or point debate that rages among archaeologists.

Hemmings speaking to Latvis: There you go. Tap it a little bit and that should be full so it should be okay now.

Hemmings: These are finished casts of the very large Clovis point and the barbed ivory point which now can be put on display in the exhibit hall or can be sent to other scientists worldwide for comparative purposes.

Webb: The satisfaction that I’ve received in my 30 years in this river, and indeed the whole project, is received in the last 15 of very intense work, is impossible to describe. The Museum and people of the future will benefit from this but I think those of us that were directly involved are very, very privileged.

Doug Jones: The Florida Museum of Natural History was chartered by the legislature in 1917, so that makes us over 80 years old at the present time. Since that time, it has grown to become the largest collection-based museum in the Southeastern United States and probably the most comprehensive university-based natural history museum in the country. So the citizens of Florida should be quite proud of this institution that has grown to such enormous capacity in 80 years.

Learn more about Vertebrate Paleontology Collection at the Florida Museum.

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