Page/Ladson site update

By Dr. S. David Webb and James S. Dunbar

They say that “all good things must come to an end”, and that aphorism certainly applies to Page/Ladson, the ARPP’s primary site in the Half-Mile Rise section of the Aucilla River. Many of us affectionately call this productive place “the center of the universe”, and that’s no great exaggeration within the purview of the ARPP. Page/Ladson packs a powerful punch both scientifically and sentimentally. Its location, where the clear waters of the Wacissa River’s eastern branch spill over a resistant chert race into the widest and deepest expanse of the Aucilla, is breathtakingly beautiful. One senses intuitively that this is truly a noble place, and probably has been so for eons. And so to those who knew the region, it came as no surprise that this underwater site, which SCUBA divers of the Cousteau era had dubbed “Booger Hole”, would play a special role in illuminating the prehistory of the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

At the end of our inaugural 1983 season the first team of ARPP explorers visited this site with Buddy Page, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and our lead diver. The paleontological and archaeological returns drew us back for our second season. And that is when the true potential of Page/Ladson began to dawn on us. Continuous deposits of sediments stood five meters (ca. 15 feet) vertically along the lower (submerged) reaches of the river bank. Upon our return for the third season we thrilled at the sight of these orderly stacks of ancient sediments still standing in the walls of the previous year’s excavation. By then we had some preliminary carbon dates demonstrating that the Page/Ladson site spanned the five critical millennia of the waning Ice Ages from latest Pleistocene into early Holocene. We had a detailed sedimentary record (about a millimeter per year) spanning the time when seas rose dramatically (as ice sheets shrank), when mammoths and other megafauna went extinct, and when the first humans colonized the New World. During most of the ARPP’s next 11 seasons we excavated a number of test pits at the Page/Ladson complex, until finally this past year we determined to complete our work. After all, we had a book contract with Plenum Press for our multidisciplinary team to report its work (The First Floridians is to be released in late 1999). As befits this very special site, Page/Ladson gave us another fabulous season.

We dedicated the end of May and the first week of June, 1997 to removing nearly 12 feet of leaf litter and relocating old test pits along the west bank, including our most important long trench, dubbed “the stairway into the past”. Its foot lay in 35 feet of water when we reached it on June second. We laid out new excavations to the north and east of the old ones and emplaced upon them our two-by-three-meter rail-track grid-frame. We were intent on getting to the deeper parts of the section, as we already had made a huge haul from the Bolen layer in 1995 (see “Underwater site...” and “Page/Ladson Faunal Remains...”). The older beds obliged us by dipping upward, and soon we saw familiar sandy sediments mingled with “straw mat” (yellowish peaty material that we had learned five years earlier represents mastodon digesta, see “Latvis/Simpson site update”). On June 7 this eastern promontory produced both a flint flake and the right maxillary of an extinct llama bearing three molars (Fig. 1). The screen operators also collected a piece of fresh proboscidean tusk sent up the dredge from the same deposit. As another week passed we exposed a large volume of productive sediments and a very outstanding sample of mastodon bones (pelvis, scapula, vertebrae and ribs) in deep, approximately 12,000-year-old, sandy sediments. On June 13th we had to quit at noon out of respect for the first ferocious thunderstorm of the season.

The final excavation of the ‘97 season is recorded in our field logs as “97-2 northeast extension”. It reached out to the center of the river with the sediment top in 20 feet of water. Among our first discoveries was a magnificent mastodon maxillary bearing all three molars (Fig. 2), the upper edges of the cheek region slowly eroding in the water column. This mid-river section is surely the source of the wealth withdrawn by early amateur collectors. We spent the final ten days making detailed maps and recording 202 field specimens of archaeological and paleontological material. The pile of sediments in mid-river looked familiar to us veterans of the west bank, but we carefully measured new stratigraphic sections and gathered numerous samples for carbon dating. At this writing (February 1998) we anxiously await the results of our new series of carbon dates. We anticipate that they will mirror those from the west bank. If so our 1997 season will have corroborated the supreme value of the Page/Ladson Site as the richest and most detailed prehistoric time capsule in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.