Prehistoric Underwater Archaeology in Florida
By Franklin H. Price, Underwater Archaeologist, Florida Department of State
People often confuse archaeology and paleontology, which is easy because both fields study the past, and both often use excavations to make discoveries. However, they are concerned with different things: paleontologists study the biology of the past, while archaeologists study the past through the material that people left behind. In Florida archaeology, what we can learn goes back from recent history to the earliest Floridians who lived here more than 14,000 years ago. Amazing discoveries in Florida archaeology have happened on land, but there are also fascinating sites underwater. Thousands of years ago, when sea levels were lower, Florida was much larger than it is today. With sea level rise, much of the ancient peninsula was inundated. These areas that were once land are now underwater, and submerged with them are the evidence of past cultures.
Most manmade objects don’t survive for thousands of years, but stone tools do. This is why much of what we know about prehistoric Floridians comes from artifacts made of stone, like projectile points, commonly called arrowheads. Just like other things people make, from cars to cell phones, projectile point designs changed with time. When a new site is discovered, a stone tool can tell us how old the site is. In Florida, this can be incredibly old.
An example of this is the Page-Ladson site in northwest Florida, where artifacts found in a sinkhole in a Florida river were dated to 14,500 years old. The people who left these artifacts behind used the sinkholes for water, and hunted mastodons, a now-extinct relative of the elephant. This makes the site one of the oldest in North or South America. Researchers have learned a great deal of new information about the oldest Floridians from this one important site.
Please remember, archaeological sites and artifacts on state land are protected by law. This also includes Florida’s submerged lands like rivers, lakes, and the bottom of the sea. These lands belong to everyone, so please help protect them. Don’t disturb an archaeological site and remember to leave artifacts in place so that they can be properly studied. Who knows what people might learn from it?
Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves – Shipwrecks
Our state is surrounded by water, so maritime commerce has been an important part of Florida’s life for centuries. With sea traffic came maritime disasters, including shipwrecks. As a result, Florida’s waters contain thousands of shipwrecks. Historic shipwrecks in Florida are protected by law and need to be conserved and protected. If you visit an historic shipwreck, please remember that they belong to all Floridians, so take only photos and leave only bubbles. Leave shipwrecks alone for future generations to enjoy. However, divers are encouraged to visit Florida’s historic wrecks, and one way to start is to visit Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves, our museums in the sea.
Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves are twelve historic shipwrecks that nearly encircle Florida, from Pensacola to Key Biscayne to Fort Pierce. They include diverse sites representing aspects of Florida’s long maritime history. In Pensacola you can visit the wreck of the country’s oldest surviving battleship, USS Massachusetts. A veteran of the 1898 Spanish-American War, this is one of the first US Navy battleships of a modern design. Two Spanish colonial wrecks are part of the preserves program. The first is Urca de Lima, a Spanish store ship lost along with the 1715 plate fleet in a terrible hurricane. Now she rests in shallow water off Ft. Pierce. The second is San Pedro, lost in another plate fleet disaster, this time in 1733 near Islamorada. At San Pedro, divers and snorkelers can see the ballast pile, and enjoy several replica cannon that replace the originals removed by salvors. Vamar, off Mexico Beach in the panhandle, has a very colorful history. A gunboat, rum runner, and then a support vessel for an Antarctic expedition, in her last days she was a tramp steamer and sank under mysterious circumstances in 1942. Other Preserves include a river steamboat, sailing cargo ships, a racing yacht, a navy tug, and a sugar barge. Although you are encouraged to see them in person, you can tour these sites without leaving your home by visiting the website (museumsinthesea.com).
Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail
Another way to enjoy Florida’s fascinating shipwrecks is to visit northwest Florida. The Florida Panhandle is a popular dive destination, known for its warm, clear blue water, abundant marine life, and also its dazzling array of shipwrecks. The Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail can help visitors navigate these shipwrecks. Each shipwreck has a video, and a web page interpreting it for divers. Also, divers can pick up an official passport at participating dive shops, and get the passport validated with a sticker and signature. Finish the trail and in addition to bragging rights, and get a free t-shirt, while supplies last.
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