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Florida study documents condition, existence of endangered coastal archaeological sites

FPAN's Mike Thomin, standing, and graduate student Jeffery Robinson display a 3-D laser scan of the rapidly eroding Butcherpen Mound on Naval Live Oaks property in Gulf Breeze, Florida.
Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media
FPAN's Mike Thomin, standing, and graduate student Jeffery Robinson display a 3-D laser scan of the rapidly eroding Butcherpen Mound on Naval Live Oaks property in Gulf Breeze, Florida.

Over the summer, archaeologists with the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) wrapped up a state-funded study of cultural heritage sites threatened by the effects of climate change. Today, WUWF looks at some of the findings in the final report, which was submitted to the state this fall.

FPAN’s study “Assessing Archaeological Sites at Risk” under the Heritage Monitoring Scouts (HMS) FloridaProgram, included 580 sites statewide, more than 60 in the Northwest Region.

One of them is The Old Chimney, a pre-Civil War era structure on Pensacola’s Scenic Highway, as detailed in an FPAN Vlog (video blog).

“One part of the site, you’ll see branches with trees growing out of and in between the bricks. So, over time, that’s really going to degrade the brick and compromise the integrity of the structure,” says archaeologist Nicole Grinnan in the video.

“Is that the Butcherpen one? Yeah, that’s a good one,” noted FPAN’s Mike Thomin and graduate student Jeffery Robinson, at their Pensacola headquarters, scanning their computer files for a good 3-D image to illustrate what they’ve been seeing in the field. They settle on a laser scan of Butcherpen Mound.

“So, it’s showing the changes based on the different scans,” added Thomin.

Butcherpen is a prehistoric Native American site located in the Naval Live Oaks area of Gulf Islands National Seashore. Along with the Jupiter Midden and Calusa Island, Butcherpen and Scenic Highway are among 13 rapidly eroding sites statewide and three locally laser scanned for the study. Robinson, who’s been scanning the site, says it’s in pretty bad shape.

“This is close to 90% gone,” he declared.

“There used to be a really clear, double-banded midden structure. Looking at the top, there’d be normal colored sand and then just a solid band of black from all the organic materials, which obviously you can’t see there now.”

“It’s eroding and being lost at probably a pretty alarming rate,” confirmed FPAN Director Bill Lees, who attributes the loss of shoreline to serious storm events like Hurricane Sally in September of 2020.

“And, at some point, you know, sites like Butcherpen, which is a very important site, will be gone.”

Overall, Lees said the study results were a mixed bag. Just on Santa Rosa Island, they recorded the exciting, unexpected rediscovery of the Civil War-era Battery Cameron at Ft. Pickens. But, they came up empty looking for other sites on the barrier island.

“There’s one that was an early life-saving station out there that was recorded back in the 1970’s. It’s on the gulf side and currently there’s no evidence at all,” he said. “It appears to have been totally lost due to the erosion of the gulf shore from repeated hurricanes.”

During the grant period from July 2019 to June 2021, HMS Florida participants assessed sites across 38 Florida counties, many in Volusia and St. John’s in FPAN’s Northeast Region, where Sarah Miller is regional director.

“So, we wanted to know what is actually happening out there and not just anecdotal, not just a general feeling, but be able to scientifically document and mark and measure and look at that change over time,” she said.

Miller wrote the HMS Florida grant, partly due to dramatic changes to the Native Mound and Spanish colonial well at Shell Bluff Landing, near St. Augustine.

A Climate Story video about the site details the impact of shoreline erosion.

For the study, archaeological sites made up 83% of the resource types assessed. Nearly 16 percent were historical cemeteries and just 1 percent were historical structures.

The findings show that nearly half (48.4%) of the sites visited were in good-stable condition, 34% were in fair-declining condition, and 7.6% of the sites were found to be in poor–unstable condition. Twenty percent of the sites on their list were not assessed because they could not be found.

“It’s actually quite difficult to say you lost a site,” said Miller.

“Is it not there because it’s not mapped in the right place? It not there because it’s now underwater and parts of it are above and parts are below? Did development occur?”

This remote archaeological site in the FPAN's Northwest Region is partially submerged.
Florida Public Archaeology Network
This remote archaeological site in the FPAN's Northwest Region is partially submerged.

So, she says they did a deeper dive into what happened to those disappearing sites and found that the answer is a bit of all of the above, with proof that the scales are tipping toward climate change.

“In the areas where we were looking, we were losing sites more than twice the rate to erosion and sea level rise than we were to development,” said Miller, explaining that it was a bit of a surprise to learn that 5.5% of the lost sites were due to factors related to shoreline erosion, such as sea level rise, while fewer than half of those (about 2.6%) were lost to due to development.

For those sites documented, Miller says their goal is to work with local communities to prioritize them.

“What comes first and how do you rank anything in any order to be able to start doing some action, beyond fretting and worrying and getting depressed, by doing some positive change.”

Chief among the study’s recommendations is continued use of the citizen-based HMS Florida program to carry on with regular monitoring.

“You need to go back,” she implored, “because the sites will be different and nothing is worse than not knowing when was the last time someone was at a site to characterize major changes that sites might go through.”

With more than 8,000 miles of shoreline and thousands of endangered cultural heritage sites, Miller believes if any state needs to come up with a game plan, it’s Florida, “Because we are out of time with these band aid approaches to what we’re doing to protect our shoreline.”

Miller is already moving forward with a new 3-year grant to study Florida’s National Estuarine Research Reserve, where Shell Bluff Landing is located.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.