Beneath the surface: both sides now

By Susan Kane

The jug disappeared below the surface of the water once, and then again. Two pulls, it was the signal from the divers on the river bottom to start up the dredge. Push of the button and as the motor caught, a huge spray of water shot across the screen deck and out into the river. Quickly we pushed against the pump discharge to drop the stream of water to a controlled flow. So starts my first day as a screen deck operator on the Aucilla River Prehistory Project. We had already tied off the dredge rafts downstream of where the divers would be working, but close enough so that the dredge suction hose could reach. Also we had anchored the dive flags strategically to alert passing boats of divers in the water. The engines which supplied power for the operation had been checked and refueled. We had been briefed in the pre-dive meeting as to which units were going to be excavated, and we had prepared our field specimen bags with the proper labels. The day was to be a wonderful learning experience, not just for me, but also for the hundreds of people that came to visit the site later that day; for this was the projectís June Open House. For me however, it wasnít just a visit, it was the beginning of something which would change my life.

I had just finished doing field work on the Allendale Expedition, a paleoindian archaeology dig on the Savannah River in South Carolina, but it had been a terrestrial dig as all of my previous archaeology experiences had been. The riverine environment was all new to me, and learning to identify the abundant floral and faunal remains we were collecting was fascinating. It was very rare however, for an artifact to come up on the screendeck. I learned why later, when the divers finished their two hour shift, and I had an opportunity to examine the wonderful array of artifacts which they had excavated, mapped, and collected underwater. Even though I was on the screendeck working in the sunshine, it was I who was working in the dark. It was the divers, deep in the black waters of the Aucilla River, who were bringing the old world to light. I wanted to be there for the discovery.

I was invited back for the fall field season, and when I told Operations Manager Joe Latvis of my desire to become a research diver he offered me nothing but encouragement. If I could do it, I would be welcomed as a diver. My first challenge was to become SCUBA certified. I enrolled in recreational SCUBA classes with Charleston Scuba, a very reputable company in my hometown of Charleston, SC. My summer was packed, I was working full time running outdoor adventure camps for children, and was also taking two college classes at night, but SCUBA certification was at the top of my list of priorities. By the middle of August I had passed my written exams and all of my checkout dives. I was a PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certified diver. Now I had to satisfy all of the University of Florida Diving Science and Safety Program (DSSP) requirements. The American Academy of Underwater Sciences (AAUS) certification were the national credentials I would receive when these requirements were met. The DSSP requirements included a full physical (with blood tests, an EKG, and chest x-rays), as well as a written exam, a swim test, and a practical exam of my SCUBA skills in the water. In addition, I had to provide proof of current certification in CPR and First Aid, and as a research diver I also had to be certified as an Oxygen Provider. I already had my Wilderness First Responder certification, so I only needed to register for the oxygen class and make an appointment with my doctor for the physical. With these requirements successfully passed I contacted Joe Latvis about the remaining tests. Since I lived out of state, arrangements were made for the examinations to be taken in the field before I would be allowed to dive. I was responsible for bringing my own SCUBA gear to the dig, though tanks would be provided. I had already spent hundreds of dollars on becoming certified, and as a full time student I was very limited in my resources. I bought a used BCD (buoyancy control device), and borrowed spare gear off of friends for the trip. Having my friendís regulator checked out and serviced was much less expensive than buying a used one, or even renting one. I did not however, borrow or bring a wet suit warm enough for the two hour dive rotations in the Aucilla River, as I would soon find out, for even with a vest and hood generously loaned to me by Tim Barber, I never could stay warm.

The written exam was over. I had passed. It was much more in-depth than the PADI exam had been, and I was glad I had prepared for it. I had also been swimming every day in order to prepare for the swim test, and the months of training had paid off. But now came the real test, in the dark waters of the Aucilla. The river had been way over flood stage and was much blacker and swifter than usual. It was also very cold, in the sixties, which helped to dispel the fact that my shaking might be caused by nerves. Going under into total blackness with only a hand-held light giving about a foot of visibility for the practical exam was a bit daunting. All of my SCUBA gear had to be taken off and put back on, and emergency procedures had to be enacted as if I, or a diving buddy, were suddenly out of air. All of these SCUBA skills were thoroughly checked by operations supervisor Bill Gifford to assure my own safety and the safety of anyone I might dive with. It all went well and I was duly congratulated upon my return to the surface. I was certified and could now begin my training as a research diver.

Every day for the next ten days I had an opportunity to dive with a different experienced archaeology research diver. I learned to handle a snooper light while my buddy worked, to excavate with a dredge, to map artifacts, verify coordinates and to map units in an underwater environment. I also learned the thrill of discovery, of bringing to light remnants of a long-ago world from the cold black waters of the Aucilla River where they had been hidden for thousands of years. The most exciting find for me was the section of mammoth jaw recovered with teeth intact. I loved my experience beneath the surface as a research diver and plan on attending graduate school in the coming fall to study underwater archaeology, but I still take my turn on the screen deck whenever I am not diving, for the joy of discovery can be found on both sides, above and below the water. The last five minutes of my last day on the river I was working on the screen deck when I found a projectile point which had come up through the dredge. It was my first one. I was delighted, and I will remember it always.