Below is an excerpt from a lengthy interview I had originally planned to feature in the recent FPAN Central, Fall Newsletter. Due to space constraints when editing the newsletter, I thought a blog posting would be much more appropriate for such an in-depth conversation. I found Ginessa’s use of ethnoarchaeology to better understand pre-historic fishing technologies and coastal communities very interesting…hope you do to!
After finishing an outreach event at Cedar Key Public Library this past summer, I stumbled on an archaeological dig going on in the yard of a historic house built on a small midden along the Gulf. There I met Ginessa Mahar, PHD candidate in archaeology from the University of Florida. We chatted briefly about the work she was doing; her dissertation is focused on prehistoric fishing technologies employed along the Florida Gulf Coast, specifically the small islands of North Key, Seahorse Key, and Snake Key located off Cedar Key.
What I found most intriguing was her method of research, integrating both archaeological and ethnographic approaches. By working with current fishing communities along the Gulf coast, Ginessa is hoping to “develop new models of fishing practices that can be used to better interpret the archaeological record regarding past human-environmental interactions along Florida’s coast.” (University of Florida, Laboratory of Southeastern Archaeology website). I had the opportunity to sit down with Ginessa and talk more about her work.
Understanding the Nature Coast’s rich archaeological heritage, why did you pick Cedar Key to focus your research?
I used to work for the Museum of Natural History in New York and our field project was on the Atlantic Coast in Georgia. I did my Master thesis there, ran their field projects. I’ve been a coastal archaeologist for close to a dozen years now. So I got here and started thinking about the “missing millennium,” that period between the late archaic and woodland (roughly 3,000 to 4,000 years ago).
So we [Mahar and Dr. Ken Sassaman] were thinking if that evidence is anywhere it would be on the Gulf Coast. We’re more likely to find it out there because of the gradual slope in coastal water depth. That was my initial focus, but then very quickly it became something else when I took a class in ethno-archaeology. I realized I enjoy talking to people. I can talk to them about sea level change and learn how it has affected their lives. There are a lot of folks out there that have seen entire islands disappear in their lifetime! But even more than that, I was better understanding their connections to traditional methods and lifeways associated with fishing. I think that’s been a strong tradition for thousands of years across the planet! So I think research like this is applicable especially with the loss of fishing communities over time, for all kinds of different reasons.
So when I first decided to look at fishing on the gulf coast, because we have 5,000 years of people being fisher folk out there, I decided to start working with local community members to see how I could understand fishing in that particular area. So it really started as an ethnographic approach to archaeology. Let me see how people practice fishing and then maybe I can find reconstructions of that in the archaeological record. So if they were using nets or they were using weirs, hook and line, they (current fisherman) understand the fish and how they target different fish species.
Will you please describe what a “fish-weir” is as opposed to cast-nets or other types of net?
A fish weir is a fish trap You can have a “tidal weir” where at high tide the fish can swim over the barrier, but at low tide they are trapped behind this barrier and confined in a place. So what you have done is lured the fish into a trap and then you can harvest them more easily. Mostly you can trap demersal or bottom dwelling fish that aren’t used to swimming up into the water column, fish like flounder, sheepshead, or other small demersal fishes with a tidal weir.
Then there’s another kind of weir called a “long-shore weir” that’s constructed by having a leader or a fence that comes out perpendicular from the shoreline. That leader goes into deeper water and at the end of it there’s a heart-shaped pod, where again the fish will swim down the leader and into the trap. For this kind of weir, it’s dependent on fish behavior. Schooling fish will swim into the trap and just perpetually swim around in circles. They won’t know that the entrance is also the exit. Then at low tide you can go and harvest them.
We know through ethnohistorical accounts that there is documentation by Spanish explorers of evidence of fish weirs being constructed out of limestone cobbles. In south Florida there’s word that the Calusa made them out of heaps and piles of oyster shells. So essentially the fish come to you, it’s a more passive fishing method.
Do you think the “fisher folk” you’ve worked with on Cedar Key had an understanding of the archaeology of the area?
The people that I work with out in Cedar Key, it took them a little while to believe I was an archaeologist because I would just be asking questions all the time about what they do fishing. They were wondering what that had to do with anything. But I think now they get it. They seem to have a sense or a pride or connection with Native Americans that live there before them because they have such a love for that place. Especially when they start thinking that these weren’t just Native Americans wondering around in the woods, we’re talking about fisher people!