From the Public Archaeology Trenches: Using Art as Evaluation

By: Becky O’Sullivan

Each summer during the last two weeks in July, staff from the West Central Regional Center of the Florida Public Archaeology Network put on a Junior Archaeologist summer camp for children between the ages of 7 and 11 at the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center in St. Petersburg, FL. It is both extremely rewarding, and extremely tiring, to teach 20 kids about archaeology for a week, but we wondered what actual messages were getting across to our campers from the educational activities and archaeology hikes we were leading them through. No kid wants to participate in a pre- and post-test at summer camp, so how could we get a better idea of what the kids were taking away from our Junior Archaeologist camp curriculum without resorting to more formal testing methods?


As an “ice breaker” activity at the beginning of camp we ask the kids to draw what they think about archaeology. This serves as a good “pre-test” to see what knowledge the kids come in with, versus how their ideas change by the end of the session.

Over the past few years, FPAN staff has used art as a means of assessment at our summer camps as a way to gauge the effectiveness of our message. This is a simple method to get some immediate feedback on what the kids have learned, as well as what messages we need to do a better job of getting across. Each day of camp we have one or two art competitions where campers draw a picture based on one of the themes we have covered during the day. The kids have fun being creative and competing against one another for a small prize, and we get good feedback on what they have learned (as well as a stack of adorable archaeology-related pictures).



By looking through their pictures we can get an idea of the main ideas that are getting across to the kids, then tweak our approach and activities in order to make sure that they aren’t missing out on the important preservation-related messages we are trying to impart. Artistic expression works much better than written questions and answers in this context because it is more informal, and easier to accomplish for the relatively wide age range we have in our camp groups.


Kids’ perceptions of stone tool manufacture and hunting technology.

This method has also been useful at public archaeology days as a means to assess the public’s perceptions of specific archaeology topics that are on display. So the next time you are planning an archaeology related school visit, public day, or event, make sure to bring some blank paper and crayons so you can see for yourself what messages you are really getting across!


By the end of camp, kids often have a broader view of what archaeologists actually do as well as how we piece together clues to past ways of life.



Becky 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 would like more information about public archaeology or have some ideas for how to assess educational programming please contact her at 

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Archaeology at the DeSoto National Memorial Tabby Ruins

By: Becky O’Sullivan



SEAC archaeologists begin excavations at the Tabby Ruins site in Bradenton, FL.

During the last week in May 2016, archaeologists from the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) of the National Park Service were down in Bradenton to work at an amazing archaeological site at De Soto National Memorial. Hernando De Soto actually never set foot on the property, so we didn’t find any conquistador related artifacts, but the authentic history of the area is much more intriguing.


I was really lucky to get to come out and volunteer with the crew from SEAC! From left to right: SEAC archaeologists Alex Parsons and Satin Bowman, and Becky O’Sullivan.

The Tabby Ruins site, as it is known, is located within De Soto National Memorial along the Manatee River. Historical accounts have linked the structure to William Shaw who lived in the area from 1843 – 1856, but archaeological work done in the 1990s found evidence of an earlier occupation of the structure. So who really lived there? What was the “Tabby Ruin” actually used for? Could it be the remains of an early 1800s Cuban fishing rancho? Or could it be related to the maroon community of Angola, which was located somewhere along the Manatee River from 1812-1821? These are all questions that archaeology can help answer.


Broken bits of historic ceramics can help us figure out when a site was in use. The plain, brown fragment in the middle is a piece of olive jar (probably the oldest ceramic type out of those shown). Pearlware and mochaware (late 18th early 19th century ceramics) were also recovered from the site.


Glass seal from a style of bottle known as a “case gin bottle”. These bottles were mouthblown by a glassmaker into a mold to give them their distinctive shape, then this glass seal would have been added to denote the maker of the liquid inside. This seal reads “Van Den Bergh & Co” and probably dates from the 1870s to the 1890s.

Beyond wanting to learn more about who was living there, part of the reason SEAC archaeologist Dr. Margo Schwadron and her crew are working at the site now is because of a looming threat to all of Florida’s coastal areas: sea level rise. Due to its low elevation and fragile nature this site will likely be destroyed in 50 years given current projections. So what can archaeologists do to mitigate the damage we know will occur to this important piece of Florida Gulf Coast history? Dr. Schwadron and her crew will be returning to the site over the next two years as part of a project to excavate and document the site before any damage from sea level rise can occur. We hope to work with them to assist in this effort, and will share with you what we find out about the Tabby Ruins and the multi-layered history of Shaw’s Point and De Soto National Memorial!


Fieldwork scenes at the Tabby Ruins, clockwise from left: Zan Rothrock sets up an excavation unit, Dr. Schwadron takes notes on a completed excavation level, investigating an interesting feature in the corner of one of the units.


Becky 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 would like more information about archaeology in the Bradenton or Manatee County area please contact her at .

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Pine Level Townsite makes it to the National Register of Historic Places!
Originally published in the Arcadian
Date: Oct 9, 2014; Section: Arcadian; Page: AS11
For images from the original story click this link


The Pine Level townsite was listed on the U.S. Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places on Sept. 17. A ceremony to celebrate this honor — and unveil a commemorative marker— will be held at 2 p.m. on Oct. 18 at the Pine Level United Methodist Church, 9596 N.W. Pine Level Street. The ceremony will be the conclusion of the Pine Level Public Art and Archaeology Day, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., cosponsored by the DeSoto County Historical Society, DeSoto Arts and Humanities Council, and Florida Public Archaeology Network West Central Region. The events are free and open to the public.

The historical marker at the Old Pine Level site will soon be joined by a plaque commemorating its listing to the National Register of Historic Places!

The Historical Society will offer guided walking tours of the townsite and an exhibit of artifacts. The Arts Council will display landscapes and streetscapes of Pine Level between 1866 and 1900, as imagined by children and adult artists, as well as “fat quarter” quilts made from fabrics reproduced from the same era. FPAN will provide hands-on archaeological activities. Crowley Museum will feature the “Pine Level Trail” which bisects their property in Myakka. Food and beverages will be available.

Pine Level was founded in 1866 as the new county seat of old Manatee County. Established in 1855, the county extended nearly 5,000 square miles, including the modern counties of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, Highlands, Manatee and Sarasota. Although no settlement existed at that time, Pine Level was chosen as the county’s geographical center. It was conveniently distant from the Village of Manatee, the former county seat and ally of the Confederacy. An African-American family was one of the first four to live at Pine Level, and it may have been considered a freedman’s town. It was a frontier “wild West” settlement with saloons and shoot-outs as well as a courthouse, jail, school, churches, stores, boarding houses and a newspaper. Union Veteran John F. Bartholf served as the first postmaster in 1871.

This two-story structure was first used as a school and then the sanctuary for the Pine Level United Methodist Church. Image courtesy of the DeSoto County Historical Society.

When DeSoto County was founded in 1887, Pine Level became the county seat. Voters did not choose Arcadia as the government center until November 1888. It had the advantage of transportation by river or rail. The first train arrived in 1886 — the same year that the town was incorporated. Bypassed by the railroad and abandoned by the county government, Pine Level declined. The only physical witnesses of the town are a Florida Historic Marker and the original Pine Level School. The Pine Level Methodist Church purchased the school in 1923, and after a 1930 hurricane damaged the second floor, the church was re-roofed as a one-story structure. It has since been remodeled, and other buildings have been added.

Archaeologists and volunteers work to find evidence of the historic town of Pine Level in DeSoto County.

Members of the Historical Society participated in the archaeological field work in Pine Level conducted in 2010 by Jana Futch, a student seeking a Master of Arts degree in anthropology from the University of South Florida. Now a professional archaeologist with Brockington and Associates of Atlanta, Ga., she prepared the National Register application. It was financed in part by a grant from the Bureau of Historic Preservation, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Department of State, assisted by the Florida Historical Commission. The Florida National Review Board unanimously approved the Pine Level nomination, noting that the town is one of only seven Reconstruction-era sites recognized in the state.

For more information, call Carol Mahler at 863-445-0789 or email

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FPAN West Central Summer 2014 Newsletter

To check out the latest edition of the FPAN West Central Newsletter click this link: FPAN West Central Summer Newsletter

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From the Public Archaeology Trenches: Talking about Stone Tools

By: Becky O’Sullivan

How do you make a concept like stages of lithic reduction interesting to the public? How do you convince people that tiny flakes of stone (not even arrow heads or stone knives) can be important to understanding people in the past? For public archaeologists such as myself, this is the sort of quandary we face on a daily basis. One good way is to give people a simplified visual to interact with. In general, when you give people a simple model to start with it tends to be much easier for them to think about more difficult or abstract concepts…. such as lithic reduction! Below are instructions for an easy to make puzzle to get the point across (sorry…) as well as tips on how to use it when talking to the public.



What you’ll need:

  • Round, flat piece of wood, preferably with bark still on. These can be purchased at most craft stores
  • Jigsaw
  • Sandpaper or a Dremel
  • Clear coat or shellac


Draw out a design for your puzzle pieces onto the wooden round. Make sure that your pieces aren’t too complicated but that they will end up with differing amounts of bark on one edge. Some pieces should have lots of bark (primary flakes), while others have a little (secondary flakes), and a few should have none (tertiary flakes). You can model the “tool” in the middle after the outline of your favorite projectile point. We went with a Clovis point because of our Paleoindian theme for Florida Archaeology Month, and its simple outline.

Once you get your pieces cut out, carefully sand the edges. I used a Dremel tool to add a little “chipped stone” effect to each piece, this also helps you remember which side is up for each piece and makes the puzzle easier to put back together. Finally, add a few layers of clear coat and let dry.


  • Have your participant take the puzzle apart, not put it together. Stone tool making is all about careful reduction so by having people take the puzzle apart you will make them mimic some of the basic stages.
  • Have some actual stone tools, flakes, or pieces of raw stone like chert or flint on hand to compare to the puzzle pieces. People often learn best when they can compare things they know and understand to the new things you are trying to teach them about.
  • Use other everyday comparisons to help them understand what you are talking about. For instance, when I talk about cortex I often compare it to the outside of a potato. If you were going to make french fries out of a potato you would probably want to get rid of the gross looking skin of the potato to get to the starchy goodness inside. It’s the same with stone tool manufacture. The gross, weathered outer layer of the rock (cortex) is no good for making stone tools so you need to carefully remove it to get to the siliceous goodness inside.

Compare the known of you puzzle to the unknown of stone tools. The bark on the outside of the puzzle is the same as the cortex on the outside of the flakes.

Take the puzzle apart step-by-step. First remove the pieces with lots of cortex (primary flakes), then those with less (secondary flakes), then those with no cortex (tertiary flakes).

Explain that often these leftover pieces are just as important to understanding a site as the tool itself. They can reveal important information about the type of stone tool making that was going on in a specific location. Were people collecting raw stone? Working stone to make blanks and rudimentary tools? Sharpening tools that were already made? Debitage is the key to answering these questions.


People love to see and touch artifacts, but sometimes they are fragile or sharp (like stone tools). Using models like this puzzle helps to get people’s interest and gives them a visual to interact with that is tough to break.


Becky 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 some public archaeology resources you’d like to share, please contact her at .

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The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…. but are they the same ones the Paleoindians saw?

By: Brittany Yabczanka

This year’s Florida Archaeology Month posters featuring photos by Curt Bowen of Little Salt Spring and Warm Mineral Springs are beautiful. We have learned that the coastline of Florida has changed dramatically, but you may be surprised to learn that the sky we see now is also not quite the same as the one the Paleoindians would have seen when they were living near the springs.

Earth’s axis is not completely stable. It “wobbles” due to a “precession cycle” that completes a rotation about every 26,000 years. This means that what we call the North Star, has not always been the North Star and that the apparent position and movement of all the stars and constellations has changed since the first Floridians got here. We call Polaris our North Star because it stays in the same place all night while the other stars seem to move around it. It is a stationary point that can be used to navigate. In the year 10,000 BC, however, the most stationary point would have been somewhere in the middle of what we call the Hercules constellation. In 7,000 BC, it was between Hercules and Draco, moving closer toward Polaris.

As the Earth moves through its precession cycle the star we think of as the “North Star” changes.

To picture how this affects the night sky, try pointing to a wall. Now imagine the room spinning around your arm. Next, point to a different wall and do the same thing. Everything in the room still stays in the same place, but their movement relative to you changes in appearance based on where you are pointing. Of course, it is actually Earth that rotates, but in this case it is easier to picture the room moving like the sky appears to do throughout the night. This is important because this shift affects which stars are visible, when they are visible, and where they rise and set. For people using the stars for navigational, calendric, and/or spiritual purposes, all of these factors are important.

Using a program called Stellarium (free at, it is possible to turn back the clock at any location and see what the sky would have looked like. In the location window I entered the GPS coordinates of Little Salt Spring and Warm Mineral Springs. At each location, I then opened the time and date window and adjusted it to reflect when some of the first people would have been at each site. For Little Salt Spring, a wooden stake through an extinct tortoise was found that dates to about 12,000 years ago. I used the year 10,000 BC (Stellarium does not use BC or AD, so it would be written as -10,000) because based on the archaeological evidence it is likely that people were occupying the area at that time. For Warm Mineral Springs, I used the year 7,000 BC because artifacts there have been dated to about 9,000 years ago. For all of the images below I used a date in March so that you can go outside tonight and see how the sky has shifted! All pictures represent March 18th at 8:00 pm, but for different years in the past or in 2014.

The stars over Little Salt Spring 12,000 years ago. No, the dock would not have been there 12,000 years ago….


The stars over Little Salt Spring today.


Looking at the picture of Little Salt Spring (facing NE) 12,000 years ago compared to the one today, the most obvious difference is that the modern one has more sunlight on the horizon. This is because, while the sun’s position in the sky does not change dramatically over time, minor changes in the time of day that it rises and sets do occur. Next, you probably notice that none of the same stars appear from the ancient sky to the modern. It is not because of the time of day, it is because of the precession. If you were able to see through the earth in the modern picture (which you can do by clicking the ground icon in the bottom settings bar when using Stellarium), you would see the same stars that are in the ancient picture, just below the horizon. In a 12,000 year span, Hercules goes from being mostly circumpolar (visible all night, revolving close to the North Pole) to rising late in the night, further East in the sky.

The stars over Warm Mineral Springs 9,000 years ago (Buildings and lawn chairs not included).

The stars over Warm Mineral Springs today.

Warm Mineral Springs (facing NW) has similar differences between ancient and modern as the pictures for Little Salt Spring in terms of sunlight and the change in stars. A good eye can pick out, though, that Polaris (our North Star) is not anywhere near being due North. In fact, it would not even visible all night 9,000 years ago! This means that if the Paleoindians were using the stars for navigation, they would have had to use a different star or group of stars than we use to find North today. Most likely, they would have used a star or group of stars that are part of what we call the Hercules constellation.

While looking at these pictures, it is also important to remember that the stars would not have had the same names and myths that we associate with them today. We primarily use the ancient Greek system, but the Paleoindians obviously would not have done the same. They would have had their own names and stories that were important to them connected with the stars. Do you have any names for stars or groups of stars that are not part of the official catalog? Some cultures focused on the sun (the cycle of which is relatively unchanged). Others, like the Inca used the dark spaces between the stars as constellations. Known Native American star lore, like that of the Lakota and Navajo, have names for only a few stars and they tend to be associated with certain stories.

Unfortunately, there is not yet any archaeological evidence for whether the Paleoindians used the stars for navigational or spiritual purposes. A deer antler found at Little Salt Spring with 28 notches in it could be an intriguing clue. One possibility is that this artifact was used as a way of tracking the lunar cycle, which is 28 days long. Dr. John Gifford, who recently gave a talk about his archaeological work at Little Salt Spring at the University of South Florida, spoke about this possibility during his lecture. The moon’s cycle was important to many cultures all over the world as a way to track time and the seasons, as well as for spiritual reasons. Notably, the moon was used by the Hopewell who measured and used the lunar cycle for planning major events and to track the seasons, and interacted with later Native Floridians.


*Note: Some of the stars visible in Bowen’s photos are there because of the type of lens and effects he used, that I was not able to replicate in Stellarium. Orion, for example, in the Warm Mineral Springs picture, is actually almost directly overhead.



To download Stellarium visit:

For more information on Hopewell lunar importance:


Brittany Yabczanka graduated from the University of South Florida in 2012 with her B.A. in Anthropology. She focused on Archaeology and minored in Astronomy, and has since built her own telescope. Brittany currently works at the West Central office of the Florida Public Archaeology Network.


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Site Seeing: Paleoindians at the Harney Flats Site

By: Becky O’Sullivan

You might not know it, but there is a good chance you recently drove over the earliest known archaeological site in the Tampa Bay area. But don’t worry, it happens thousands of times every day!


The Harney Flats site was discovered during road construction for I-75, today you can visit a small park nearby.


While some of the most famous documented Paleoindian sites in Florida are located either to our north in the panhandle or to our south at Little Salt and Warm Mineral Springs an equally important one is located right here in our area: underneath I-75. In the late 1970s, archaeologists working for the State of Florida excavated the Harney Flats site ahead of road construction along I-75. Deep beneath the surface they uncovered evidence of a stone tool workshop and possible camp dating back more than 10,000 years. Harney Flats is unique because of its location; many of the Paleoindian sites found in other parts of Florida are in rivers or springs while Harney Flats is high and dry.


A view of I-75 as it travels over the Harney Flats site.


During the Paleoindian period the location of the Harney Flats site would have looked much different than today. The site sits on an ancient sandy ridge that today over looks dry land and the Tampa Bypass Canal, but thousands of years ago would have been on the edge of a large, low drainage area larger than present day Hillsborough Bay. The ridge would have been a great place to live for Paleoindians not only because of the higher elevation, but also because of the rock outcrops located nearby that would have provided the raw materials for their stone tools.


A natural ridge running through the area (visible here as a rise in the road) would have been a great place for Paleoindian people to collect the stone they needed to make some of their tools.

Archaeologists have been able to date the Harney Flats site because of the types of stone tools found there, as well as information obtained from optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. Chert cores used to produce stone flakes, as well as stone scrapers, abraders, and points at different stages of the production process were all recovered. Suwannee and Simpson points typical of the Paleoindian period were also found there, along with a distinct new subtype recently identified by archaeologist Dr. Jim Dunbar. Next time you are driving north on I-75 near the 301 exit take a moment to think about what life would have been like for people living in Florida more than 10,000 years ago!


A replica cast of a Simpson point found during excavations at the Harney Flats site.


Top: View of the Tampa Bypass Canal looking south. Bottom: View to the north looking at a small dog park near the site. Bring your pooch here to experience some of Florida’s archaeological heritage!




Daniel, Randy and Michael Wisenbaker

1983     A Preliminary Report on the Excavations at Harney Flats, Hillsborough County. The Florida Anthropologist 36(1-2), pgs 67-79.


Daniel, Randolph I, Michael Wisenbaker, and George Ballo

1986     The Organization of a Suwannee Technology: The View from Harney Flats. The Florida Anthropologist 39(1-2), pgs 24-54.


Dunbar, James S.

2013     Mental Templates and a Revised Typology for Florida Paleoindian Points. Paper presented at the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, Tampa.

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Saving Florida’s Past is Worth the Trouble

This week, Tampa Bay Times reporter, Ben Montgomery, and columnist, Daniel Ruth, dissed their readership by diminishing the importance of Florida archaeology and by continuing the idea that artifacts of prehistory (and those from historical times for that matter) are worth something in dollars and cents. They are worth much more than that. These remains have value intrinsic to the knowledge they can provide about the past. Montgomery and Ruth understate this importance when they minimize the fact that these objects were made and used by people that were entirely culturally different from us today.

However, similar to the great and mysterious state within which we live, Florida in the past was just as distinct and unique as it is today. Artifacts and archaeology sites, when properly preserved and purposefully excavated, offer clues to help tell these stories. Stories that, for instance, revolve around monumental architecture and land modification, burial practices and trade patterns, daily lives, the civic and domestic routines of people whose ancestors arrived some 14,500 years ago. Archaeology and the basic artifact can only deliver these stories to us in pieces. It’s up to us to fill in the blanks. Each piece adds value to these stories.

Some of these stories can be found near Lake Okeechobee or on Hontoon Island, on Tyndell Air Force Base or at Pinellas Point where early Floridians built huge mounds and earthworks from sand and things that we call artifacts but to them were used up and discarded food and tool remains. Together these bits and pieces of oyster, clam and whelk shell, animal and fish bones, ceramic pots and flakes of chert or agatized coral comprised the building materials of the day. If you believe Montgomery and Ruth’s portrayal you might think that these people were just chunking rocks into rivers and moving along, or worse you might not think of these people at all.

Some of these stories can also be found around Charlotte Harbor or along the Crystal River, on hilltops near Tallahassee or in a wetland near Titusville where people with basic community needs shared in religious and ceremonial activities and rituals. At these places, archaeology and artifacts tell us of trade networks that stretched as far away as present day Michigan. These sites can also tell us about a person’s last meal, as some of their bodies and stomach contents remained preserved in muck and mud for some 5,000 years. Archaeologists carefully recover these remains because they are finite, and they are the only evidence we have of these past ways of life. They cannot be replaced and they cannot be remade.

When we have the choice we choose to preserve these things in place but if that’s not possible it is then and only then that they are carefully recovered. Instead of selling our history short by relegating it to the corner of a collector’s living room we should celebrate and honor it in the best way we can by preserving it where it is or at the very least preserving the knowledge hidden within it. The men and their “plight” profiled by Montgomery and Ruth in recent articles are not just stealing rocks from state lands. What they have done is to steal knowledge from past, present, and future residents of this great and wacky state. This activity is more than worthy of punishment.

Jeff Moates & Becky O’Sullivan
Florida Public Archaeology Network

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Faunal-palooza Part 5: Otoliths

By: Becky O’Sullivan


Welcome to the final installment of faunal-palooza! I’ve already shown you the wonders of archaeological mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish; now for the grand finale….. Otoliths! Who doesn’t like a nice fish otolith, amirite? These tiny bony structures found in the ears of all vertebrates (we’re interested in the fish variety especially) can tell archaeologists a lot, not just about the species of fish, but also about the environment the fish lived in… but more on that in a minute.

If you’ve ever had vertigo you know what it feels like to have your otoliths go rogue and let you down. That’s because their main function is to act as a stability mechanism and let the brain know the relative position of the body in space. In humans, otoliths are tiny particles found in our inner ear. Most fish species, however, have only three sets of otoliths that are much larger than those found in humans: the sagittae (the largest, found behind the eyes, and the ones archaeologists are most interested in), lapilli , and asterisci. Fish otoliths build up in layers over time with calcium carbonate from the environment. This might seem like a lame fact, but it’s actually really important for archaeologists trying to study people in the past. Otoliths are like the secret diary of past environments; they act as a record of any changes that occurred during the lifetime of the fish. So what can we learn from these little nuggets of awesomeness?


Examples of common fish otoliths found at archaeological sites in Florida. Images from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission

Otolith ID Tips:

  • Otoliths are small, irregularly shaped, and basically look like a million different things if you don’t know what you are looking at. That makes them a bit difficult to pick out of a screen during excavation, especially on prehistoric sites that are full of things like oyster shell!
  • Become familiar with the different shapes of otoliths from common species, catfish varieties are a good place to start. Their otoliths are fairly large and have a rounded shape that stands out a bit more than those of other species (see above).
  • Trying to decide whether something is an otolith or just a small piece of oyster shell? First, look to see if it is made up of rings, much like you would see inside a tree. If that doesn’t work, look for a sulcus or groove on one side of the otolith (look at the Black Drum and Sand Seatrout above for examples).

What do otoliths tell us about the fish (and the people who ate them)?

  • Species Identification- Like I mentioned in the Fish post, it can be difficult to identify fish bones down to the species level for several reasons. Thankfully, otoliths come to the rescue! Each fish species has otoliths of a unique shape (you can see some examples above), making them super useful for zooarchaeological research. When otoliths are properly collected and identified they can open a window into what people were eating in the past.
  • Minimum Number of Individuals – Remember that sulcus thing I mentioned above? It can also help you determine the side of the head your particular otolith is from…. and that can help you determine the minimum number of fishes that would have been needed to make up your otolith collection. Important info for those looking at diet or caloric values of a particular assemblage of fishy remains.
  • Age of Fish – The “rings” that make up an otolith build up over the course of a year with larger areas occurring during times of more growth (warmer months) and more compacted areas occurring during times of less growth (colder months). By counting these rings or annuli you can determine how old a fish was when it was snagged. This can be important in answering questions about fishing strategies (were they catching younger fish in coastal estuaries or older fish in more open waters?) as well as the relative health of the environment. Click here to try a fun otolith aging game! (I’m so easily amused…)

What do otoliths tell us about past environments?

  • Season of Death of the Fish (marginal increment analysis) - If the rings of the otolith build up over the life of the fish, then the last ring will be able to tell you a lot about when it died; not only how old it was but the time of year it was caught. By measuring the distance from the last annulus (the more compact ring formed during the colder, winter months) to the edge of the otolith you can infer the time of year the fish kicked the bucket. This is a helpful bit of information to know if you are interested in studying seasonal patterns in the diet of past people (were they catching a particular species at just one time of year, or all year long?).
  • Environment of the Fish (oxygen isotope analysis) – Otoliths are made up of calcium carbonate taken from the environment the fish lives in, this makes them a great record of past environments. By studying the relative amount of different isotopes in different rings of the otolith you can look at changes in water temperature and environment during the life of the fish. This information isn’t just important for archaeologists, but also for researchers looking at issues related to climate change.

Top link to check out for more otolith info: 

Intro to otoliths

Saltwater fish otolith gallery (examples from different species common to Florida)

A Guide to Otoliths from Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico

Northwest Atlantic otoliths

Becky 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 some faunal resources you’d like to share, please contact her at .

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Faunal-palooza Part 4: Fish

By: Becky O’Sullivan


We’ve all been there…. chowing down on a delicious salmon filet when a translucent spine gets lodged in your gullet. This installment of faunal knowledge might not help you avoid these gastronomic hazards, but maybe it will make you take a second look at the bones you see in your fish dinner (fish sticks not included). As we learned about mammal, bird, and reptile bones, faunal remains can tell archaeologists a lot about past diets and life ways. In Florida, fish would have been a vital part of prehistoric diets (especially along the Gulf Coast). The presence of different fish species can indicate where people were fishing in the past, as well as what strategies they might have relied on to catch their meals. Snagging a catfish or mullet is quite a bit different than trying to reel in a shark; these differences in food choice can be very informative in and of themselves. Some fish parts (like shark’s teeth and skin) were even used at tools!


Top Tips for ID’ing Fish Bones:

Fish bones are:

  • Light weight
  • Glossy and semi-translucent
  • No spongy bone
  • Flat and angular, lots of ridges and holes. These suckers are complex!

It might be fairly easy for a trained eye to say a bone is from a fish, but getting past that and to a species level of identification can be really tough. There are over 40 taxonomic orders of bony fish (there are less than 30 for all mammals), and all fish get around in pretty much the same way: swimming. Add to that the fact that fish can vary widely in size within one species, and that their fragile bones break easily and are difficult to recover, and you are faced with a seemingly daunting task. Thankfully, there are four different elements of a fish skeleton that can be helpful to focus on….

Vertebrae: Vertebrae are some of the most common fish bones recovered by archaeologists. This is due partly to their thicker and sturdier structure, but also to the fact that they are some of the most “normal” looking fish bones, and are therefore easier for the archaeologist to identify in the screen and collect (we’re only human after all). Fish vertebrae have a solid, almost spool shaped central body or centrum whose ends are both concave. Although they often break off after hundreds or thousands of years in the ground, long thing spines project out from this central body. Fun fact: the centrum of a shark vertebra looks kind of like a sweet tart (except for the small holes or foramen around the side of course).

Mouthparts: Fish might all do that swimming thing, but one area they differ is in their diets. This means specialized teeth and other mouthparts that can be good for identification.  Tooth plates, pharyngeal teeth… these are all the things you have to look forward to when investigating fish teeth. This picture alone has caused me hours of mental anguish (click here if you dare), while other fish have teeth that are surprisingly human in appearance (nice Sheepshead teeth, and a Sheepshead in need of an orthodontist). One common fish tooth us Florida archaeologists find all the time comes from the Drum fish. Drum fish teeth look like little rounded buttons and are often mistaken for beads, check out the picture below to see an individual drum tooth as well as a Drum tooth plate complete with multiple teeth.

Scales: Scales also vary in shape from species to species, so they can be a useful find. Some fish scales are very delicate however, so they often don’t survive well archaeologically.  Gar have bony, robust scales so they are a common find in some middens, see the picture below for an example.

Otoliths: These guys are so cool they get their own blog…. check back in a few days for more on otoliths!

Stay tuned for the next installment….. Otoliths! In the mean time, check out these helpful links….


For images of bones from fish commonly found at archaeological sites, check out these websites:

3D fish skull that explodes out to show all the elements, fish bone database

Archaeological fishbone images;jsessionid=A807E963B01EDFA00362E537DEA151D8?page=home

Fish reference collection photographs

Fossil examples of fish, shark, rays

Snook spines

Diagram of general bones of a fish

Perch skeleton, labelled

Academic article all about identifying different shark vertebrae


Becky 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 some faunal resources you’d like to share, please contact her at .

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