Interview with an Archaeologist: Dr. John Arthur

By: Kassie Kemp

In honor of Florida Archaeology Month and this year’s theme, Artisans of the Woodland, I visited one of the most famous Woodland Period (1000 BC to AD 1000) archaeological sites in Florida, the Weedon Island site. Dr. John Arthur, a professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) and incoming President of the Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education (AWIARE), is conducting a multi-year research project at the Weedon Island Preserve in St Petersburg, FL. This project includes excavations along with the help of graduate students from USF Tampa and USFSP undergraduate students. I had the opportunity to visit Dr. Arthur and his students and discuss all things archaeology and Weedon Island during one of their excavation days. Check out the interview with Dr. Arthur below to see what I learned!

 

Question: How did you get into archaeology?

Dr. Arthur: I took a World Prehistory course at the University of Texas at Austin and realized my passion for archaeology and to try to understand people’s history.

 

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USFSP undergraduate students Wendy Edwards (left) and Ryan Berger (middle) excavate in a 1×1 meter square unit alongside FPAN’s own Brittany Yabczanka Vojnovic (right). They are digging with the number one tool of an archaeologist, the trowel. Using a trowel allows archaeologists to dig slowly and carefully and keep the unit’s walls nice and straight!

 

What about Florida archaeology made you want to work here?

My primary research is in Ethiopia but my archaeological career began in the American Southwest so I have always had an interest in North American archaeology. Since I can’t take all my students from USFSP to Ethiopia, I decided to develop an archaeological method and theory course where students could work on an actual site and the Weedon Island site was a perfect place.

 

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USF graduate students Kendal Jackson (left) and Christine Bergmann (right) aid USFSP undergraduate students Ryan Berger (middle left) and Wendy Edwards (middle right) in measuring the depth of an excavation unit. To check how deep they dug, the students pull a string with a line level to a measuring tape and record the depth of that corner of the unit. It is important to take depth measurements often so that all the stages of excavation are well recorded.

 

Why is Weedon Island an important site and how is it connected to the rest of the Southeast?

The site is the type-site for the Weeden Island culture, but my research and AWIARE’s research are the first to undertake systematic research at the site. Many parts of the site have been destroyed by past activities but there are many areas of the site that have not been investigated. Questions still persist, such as was the site occupied at different times, then abandoned, and then reoccupied? In fact, the area where we are excavating is actually dating to after the Weeden Island time period, around 1000 A.D., which is interesting since this is the same time that the canoe dates to that was recently restored by AWIARE and is on exhibit at the Weedon Island Cultural Center (learn more about the Center by clicking here).  We hope to eventually understand the cultural changes that were occurring at the site and compare our findings to other sites from around the Southeast.

 

What are you doing out at the site?

We are teaching students how to do all the basic methodological aspects of field archaeology from outlining a 1 x 1 meter unit, excavating and screening, to recording what they find. Since the bulk of what we are finding are shells, we are trying to learn how the Indigenous people were managing their environment in terms of where they were getting their food from and the behavior related to a hunting and gathering way of life. We are also looking at the spatial analyses of how they were organizing the site and their households. There is also a team of students who have been involved in an experimental analysis looking at how to tell calories from the Melogena corona (crown conch) shell species by collecting modern shells and comparing them to the archaeological shells. This has important ramifications for developing models of Indigenous populations and foraging behavior.

 

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As archaeologists dig, it is important to look for changes in the color, texture, and makeup of the soil. These changes occur because of natural activity, like a flood, or human activity, like someone throwing away lots of oyster shells or cooking their dinner. Archaeologists use these soil changes to help us to understand what people were doing in the past. As you can see in the picture of an excavation unit above, the arrow is pointing to an area with much darker soil than the light soil around it. Why is it darker? This area may be darker because it was a place where someone cooked their food over a thousand years ago or it may have even been a wooden post in the ground that deteriorated and left a stain. Dr. Arthur and his students will have to study the soil changes in more detail to try to determine what the dark spot is. In the image on the right, USF graduate student Liz Southard and USFSP undergraduate student Ian Johnston use a Munsell Soil Color Book to determine what color the darker soil is and record it for future research.

 

What do you hope to learn?

Combining the archaeological and experimental research, we hope to learn how the Indigenous people living at the site were engaged with their environment, how they were living from day to day, and how the ecology of the region has changed over the last 1000 years.

 

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One of the most important methods in archaeology for recording information while in the field is drawing. As archaeologists dig and gather information, they are also unfortunately destroying the area where they are digging. That is why taking pictures and drawing all of the stuff they see as they dig down is very important. USF graduate student Sean West (left) assists USFSP undergraduate students in drawing the floor of an excavation unit at Weedon Island. He is laying a drawing template over the unit to help make sure that the drawing is accurate.

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These are some examples of artifacts that Dr. Arthur and his students have uncovered at Weedon Island. Left: A crown conch shell hammer. You can see where the Native Americans drilled holes to attach this shell to a piece of wood to make a shell tool. Top Right: This artifact is a small piece of broken pottery called a pottery sherd. If you look closely you can see that it is stamped with a design that looks like a waffle! Bottom Right: A stone flake leftover from making stone tools. This piece of chert, a type of stone good for making stone tools, came off of a rock while a Native American was making a stone tool such as a projectile point or knife.

 

How will what you learn inform us about the people who once lived there?

Our project is an archaeological project that is also influenced by marine biology so we hope that by learning how the estuaries were being utilized by the Indigenous people, that we can see how they have changed over the last 1000 years. Pinellas County is the most densely populated county in Florida, and to have a site where we can learn how people were utilizing the natural resources 900 years before the county was beginning to be severely developed can inform us about environmental change. In addition, with the rising sea levels from climate change, we can learn how the Indigenous people coped with changing sea levels which may give us clues as to how to manage our modern coastlines.

 

You are still in the middle of this research, so what is your next step in the project?

We will continue to investigate the life ways of the Indigenous peoples and to teach future archaeologists how to properly excavate a site. My goal is to have students develop their own independent research, such as the experimental research mentioned above, to learn how to do scientific research, and for the students to eventually publish their work. There are many questions to answer and we are just beginning.

 

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Dr. Arthur (far right) gives a tour to the public out to the area of Weedon Island where he is excavating.

 

For more information on Weedon Island click here. To find FPAN events at Weedon Island click here. If you would like to get involved in archaeology around the St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay area please follow this link.

Kassie is an archaeologist working at the West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network, located at the University of South Florida in Tampa. If you have questions about archaeology in the Tampa Bay area, please contact her at kkemp@usf.edu .

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