Golden age of the Aucilla

By William O. Gifford

During the four years that Joe Latvis and I have worked together on the Aucilla River Prehistory Project, it has always been our habit to end our typical 16-20 hour day in the field with one final meeting. Because Joe and I provide overnight security at the excavation site our day necessarily ends onboard the operations support barge in the middle of the remote Aucilla swamp. The midnight isolation of this venue provides refreshing “decompression” from the fast-paced daylight operations, while also affording us an opportunity to discuss confidential aspects of field operations management (topics like who compromised a particular safety protocol yesterday, who is too exhausted to safely continue diving two dives per day tomorrow, who’s worsening ear infection will require hospital treatment, who cannot be assigned screendeck duty because they are now taking antibiotics which prohibit sun exposure, or who requires a day offsite for psychological renewal). It was during one of these discussions that I told Joe of my imminent marriage and the severe curtailing of my role in the project. The ever practical Joe hit upon the idea of me writing an Aucilla River Times article about my reflections on experiences of the last four years.

In 1994, I had been working as a volunteer for the Palm Beach County Reef Research Team and teaching SCUBA diving at DeLeon Springs. When I heard about a Nautical Archaeology Society class and subsequent survey of the spring by Gulf Archaeological Research Institute, I thought that this would be a good opportunity for former SCUBA students and interested local divers to expand upon their skills and to learn more about the history of the spring area. Led by Dr. Robin Denson, we mapped and recorded data over 26% of the spring area in nine days. It was my first chance to work as a divemaster in this type of situation, and I have to admit I enjoyed the challenge enormously.

At the behest of Robin, who in a short period of time had become a close friend, several of us applied to and were accepted with the ARPP. When I received the dive plan, I was truly impressed with the scope of this document. It seemed to cover all contingencies, and gave one an idea of what would be encountered in the field. Of course this was not entirely the case, but as the project evolved so did the dive plan, and over the years it has expanded to cover new and previously unforeseen problems. I know that over time everyone has heard Joe and me refer to it ad nauseum, but the answer to most of your safety and operational questions are contained in it (see “ARPP: scientific diving to national standards”).

The backbone of the ARPP over the nine field seasons that I have been involved was the volunteers. With funding provided by the State of Florida through the Department of State and the Bureau of Historic Preservation, the ARPP was able to provide for the care and feeding of volunteers who were eagerly applying in ever-greater numbers from throughout Florida, the nation, and the world. Our increased ability to accommodate more workers not only increased research output but brought in divers and screen deck personnel from widely divergent backgrounds. The trio that eventually became known as the ‘Volusians’ (from Volusia County) was such a group.

The Volusians consisted of Mike Nolan, a broker and grower of foliage greens, Steve Glover, a retired ad exec and myself. Mike brought with him the common sense of a farmer and the skills needed to keep practically any piece of machinery running. Steve came with a passion for learning and an understanding of the bureaucratic maze that envelopes funding such as ours. His skill as a musician provided relief from the tension encountered in the stressful environment in which we worked. One of my fondest memories is the night the Volusians had stayed at the Nutall Rise base camp to catch up on some repairs that needed to be done while everyone else had gone out to dinner. After finishing our work and dinner we played some music and relaxed. Upon the return of the rest of the crew, Steve and I found ourselves accompanied by Dr. Webb in an a cappella version of “Ain’t Necessarily So” that the residents of Nutall Rise will never forget. The mere mention of this song probably puts their teeth on edge. Steve and Mike recognized the growing need for additional divemasters in the organization and enrolled in a class with me as their instructor. They both excelled in the class and became even more valuable members of the ARPP as fully certified divemasters.

Another noteworthy group of volunteers was the students attracted to the project from FSU. FSU has an excellent dive program and their addition helped fill out our operational assignment roles. Along with the divers from FSU came many excellent screen deck personnel as well.

Screen deck people are a breed unto themselves. As divers, we don’t understand them, but that doesn’t mean they go unappreciated. Led by long time participants such as legendary dredge guru Ed Green, Mary Hudson and Dawn Pinder, the addition of Alyssa Mc Manus, Hank Kratt, Tanya Peres, Tammy Montes and Joann Suggs gave us a crew that was able to determine when an artifact, faunal or botanical remain of consequence came up on the screen. Ed knows the different strata that divers excavate into so well that he can tell what layer you are in by the color of the dredge discharge. These people work in the blazing sun and freezing cold, facing dangers ranging from snake attacks to dehydration. They are a primary component of every successful ARPP field operation. With the departure of Ed Green, we were lucky enough to have John Eveland arrive on the scene. A gentleman of unflagging good humor, John has always been there when we needed him. Whether single-handedly repairing dredges in the offseason or lobbying for funding in Tallahassee, he has always been glad to help in any capacity.

The scientific group was led by Co-Chief scientists Dr. S. David Webb and Dr. Jerald Milanich. Dr. Webb, a paleontologist, has been cofounder (with Jim Dunbar) and director of the project since the beginning in 1983. Dr. Milanich joined us later when the need for a degreed anthropologist became apparent. They have lent guidance and support to the various field scientific directors at the many diverse sites we have excavated on the Aucilla River. The field scientific directors, with the exception of Dr. Michael Faught, have been graduate students from the University of Florida. Their ranks since 1995 include Brinnen Carter, Andy Hemmings, Mark Muniz and Matt Mihlbachler.

Dr. Faught came to us in the fall of 1994 from the University of Arizona where he had studied under Dr. Vance Haynes, one of the leaders in the study of the peopling of the Americas. This was actually his second coming, as he had trained with the ARPP in 1987 and worked the Florida offshore in the late 80’s. His arrival at the Page /Ladson site brought a wave of enthusiasm that inflamed us all for the arduous task that lay ahead. Armed with a new, red-hot Ph.D. he added spark to a weary group of divers. On the flight from Arizona Michael came up with a new and innovative idea for digging through the nearly 20 feet of extremely hard packed clay on the bottom of the river. After a series of less-than-successful field trials, redesigns, and modifications to Michael’s PVC brainstorm, it was ignominiously dubbed “the Faught-o-lator”. In fact he swears that he could still make it work if we were just to give it back to him. Michael has been a good friend to me and the project over the years and now heads the Program in Underwater Archaeology at FSU. With the end of the ARPP looming he will carry our work to the natural extension of offshore exploration (see “PaleoAucilla Prehistory...”).

Brinnen Carter was field scientific director of the Bolen component at the Page/Ladson site. A Ph.D. candidate at UF he had worked on the project as an undergrad with Dr. Denson. Brinnen has taught at FSU as an adjunct professor and now works for SEAC in Tallahassee.

Andy Hemmings came to us from the University of Arizona when Dr. Faught came here to run offshore excavations in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He is finishing his graduate work at UF. Andy has headed our excavations at Sloth Hole, a site on the west run of the Aucilla River. Sloth Hole has been a treasure trove of artifacts (see “Sloth Hole site update”). They include points, knives, tools, bone pins, ivory foreshafts, fishhooks and extinct megafaunal remains. Clearly it will take years to assimilate all the data collected here.

Mark Muniz now has his masters degree from UF and is continuing his studies at the University of Colorado. His area of study while he was with us was the section of the Aucilla known as Little River. Completely enclosed by the Ladson property, it provided great amounts of megafaunal remains in its one-mile run before going underground. Mark was one of our best divers, and some of the best dives I had were with him. During a filming session at Sloth Hole, he and Joe and I made a four-hour dive that netted us 15 minutes of film. Filming under these conditions is difficult at best, but without a diver of Mark’s caliber it would have been impossible to get the results that we wanted. The ability to remain motionless in such close quarters and still get good shots is indeed a special talent.

Matt Mihlbachler came to us by way of Southern Illinois University. While there he was a student of renowned paleobotanist Dr. Lee Newsom. His work with her gave us a great deal of help in studying the mastodon digesta found at both the Page/Ladson and Latvis/Simpson sites. I have worked with him extensively on this and have learned quite a bit from him. Matt is now a zoology graduate student at UF, and when you see the fire in his eyes while discussing his field you’ll understand why we all think of him as an asset to the project.

Besides the roster participants there are many people who have helped us. David Janet and the late Wilmer Bassett provided us with guidance through the intricacies and pitfalls inherent in politics and legislative funding. Dr. Hoyt Horne, a true southern gentleman, volunteered as the project’s field physician and was kind enough to invite us into his home for an occasional home cooked meal. J.R. Walker, whose local Aucilla River store was an oasis in a remote area of the world, provided us with a place to establish a base camp when our former camping and equipment storage areas became inaccessible. When the cabin J.R. donated for our use in 1997 became unavailable the following year up sprang another good friend, Jack Satterwhite, who offered us yet another campsite through the last two field seasons in 1998. Martha Wiggins, owner of Yarbrough Tires of Perry donated tires for our boat trailers that were of such an obscure size we probably never would have found them anywhere else. Jim Hunt of Zaney Foods, a longtime supporter, fed us when we had no cooking facilities. Buster Hancock donated the six inch dredge and Snooper light that have served us so well. Bubber Bailey pledged CSX railroad funds for equipment and ARPP scholarship needs. Tom Vereen generously donated his beautiful blue 20-foot aluminum Duracraft boat to the project just when we needed it most.

Legislative support came from then-representative Alan Boyd, Janegale Boyd, Marjorie Turnbull, and then-representative Carl Littlefield. Marjorie was our first legislator who dove on the site. Then last year, Carl Littlefield became so interested that he dove with us for a week (see “State Rep. Carl Littlefield dives with ARPP”). Senatorial support was generously provided by Sen. Pat Thomas, Charles Bronson, and then-senator Patricia Harris (now Secretary of State). Then-governor Lawton Chiles demonstrated executive concurrence by signing the budgets that contained Division of Historical Resources funding for the ARPP.

Of all the people I’ve mentioned here, the two most important in my eyes have been Dr. Webb and Joe Latvis. With the project since its inception, they have been the driving force behind everything that we have accomplished. Dave has maintained control of the science, yet given everyone the chance to deal in their own field of expertise. It was his international reputation that gave us respect in the scientific community long enough to have our say. When it came time to fire up a student, he was there with the torch. Working with him in the museum has been one of the true pleasures of my life. Joe Latvis has become one my best ‘comrades-in-arms’ as successive weeks in the field season became months of cumulative deprivation and fatigue. His dive plan was one of the major draws for me with this project. We are both very safety oriented, and his engineering background gave him the vision to make this a world class project. Working so closely together we have become almost telepathic in our communications. All divers work in a world of silence and use sign language to speak, but we have been of such a similar mindset that it has gone beyond that with us.

There will be many of the participants on this project that have not been mentioned here: Rhonda Brewer, Thadra Palmer and Melanie Damour, divers from FSU who gave their all in a male dominated field and never complained when I asked them to dive a double. Dr. Joan Herrera, with whom I made my first dive on the project. Jody Barker, a welder from Orlando who rebuilt our boat trailers from the ground up. The list goes on, but if I missed you it was not because I didn’t appreciate all of your contributions. I am limited here by constraints of time and space. My only suggestion at this point is that you contact my editor, Joe Latvis. It was surely his fault.

Editor's Note: mea culpa.