28 January 2006
Plumbing the depths of an ancient spring in Florida
Casey Coy, who works for the Florida Aquarium, and Rick Gomez, diving safety officer for the University of Miami, are the first divers to explore the bottom of Little Salt Spring, a sinkhole in North Port that contains wooden stakes, stone tools and other artifacts used by Florida's earliest inhabitants, the Paleoindians. While researchers from the University of Miami, led by John Gifford, have conducted several explorations of shallow parts of the spring over the past 20 years, no one has ever mapped out the bottom.
Coy and Gomez completed nine trips to the floor of the hourglass-shaped spring last week. They hope the data they collect there will help answer basic questions about the spring: Where is the water coming from? What caused the spring to develop thousands of years ago? Why does the water act like formaldehyde, preserving organic artifacts from decomposition?
The sliver of the sinkhole that has been studied so far has yielded ancient stones and tools as well as the bones of prehistoric animals such as mastodons and mammoths. Some of the artifacts are 12,000 years old, when archeologists believe the spring was an oasis that attracted seasonal hunters and gatherers. Over time, the water table of the spring rose, protecting the remains of prehistoric man in the underwater sediment. Because of this, Little Salt Spring is considered one of the most significant archeological sites in North America.
Along with the exploration of the bottom, underwater archeologists -- Koski of Little Salt Spring and University of Miami Dive Coordinator Mike Terrell -- are continuing their investigation of the basin of the spring, a project that's been ongoing since 1992. About 40 feet down on the ledge, scientists have found six wooden stakes that are 9,000 years old.
"We're trying to determine what their function may be, how long ago they were talled, what activities they represent and how long they were in use," Koski said. Most of the divers and other research team members from the Florida Aquarium and the University of Miami are volunteers. They will be back in June to continue their work on these projects, which could take many years to complete.
Source: Herald Tribune (19 January 2006)
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