Anthropologist leads search of ancient settlements


lara.meckfessel@heraldtribune.com University of Miami student Marisa Faraldo, left, watches as Traci Ardren, a UM assistant professor, sifts through the dirt at one of the sites on the Little Salt Springs land, which Ardren calls one of the most important archeological sites in Southwest Florida.

STAFF PHOTO / LARA MECKFESSEL /
Published: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 10:24 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2003 at 10:24 a.m.

NORTH PORT -- Home base this week for Traci Ardren, who grew up in Sarasota and sports a doctorate from Yale, is an oasis of undeveloped land near the North Port utilities department.

At the center of these 112 acres is Little Salt Springs, which Ardren, 36, now an assistant professor at the University of Miami, calls one of the most important archeological sites in Southwest Florida.

The mineral-rich waters of the flooded sinkhole, 200 feet deep, act as a natural preservative for ancient artifacts of wood, bone and plant matter, all of which rot away when buried in earth, says Ardren.

For the past 20 years, the University of Miami has conducted underwater excavations of the Little Salt Springs sinkhole. But this year, Ardren and her crew of 16 students -- including some from her undergraduate alma mater of New College -- are here this week to do some digging in the land around the spring.

They are hoping to find a midden, basically the early-civilization version of a modern-day dump, a mound of bones and other refuse left over from the PaleoIndian tribes that are believed to have been the first human inhabitants of Southwest Florida.

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STAFF PHOTO / LARA MECKFESSEL /

lara.meckfessel@heraldtribune.com New College of Florida students J.D. Kelley, left, and Mary Shanks and Mike Desatnik of the University of Miami sort through dirt at the archeological dig at Little Salt Springs in North Port. The springs are on undeveloped land near the North Port utilities department.

"There is a potential for this site to tell us a lot about people settling down into villages," says New College anthropology professor Uzi Baram, part of the digging team.

But Ardren is not hopeful. "The land was used for growing tomatoes until the late 1970s," she says. "My guess is that there isn't a lot of archeological material here, or if it is, it's really disturbed."

Ardren picks her way through a tangle of brambles, palmettos and fencing, both barbed wire and chainlink. "Human development," she says, "is the number one threat to archeology."

"Hey Mom, look at this."

Ardren watches as her 5-year-old son Cyrus digs through the dirt. "I try to have them with me as much as possible in the field," she says of Cyrus and his 7-year-old brother, Morgan.

Both children have traveled with their mother on extended digs of Mayan settlements in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, sometimes accompanied by their grandmother, Martha Ardren of Sarasota. Traci Ardren's father is local journalist Bob Ardren, a reporter for the Pelican Press.

Sometimes, Cyrus and Morgan have been left in the care of local villagers. "Kids are very adaptable," says Traci Ardren, "It was clear they'd be able to handle it."

Ardren differs from many anthropologists in that she wasn't drawn to the profession as a child. "On the contrary," she says, "I was into the arts and theater."

But her travels to London, Amsterdam and the Caribbean as an adolescent sparked an interest in people and culture.

Then, a class at New College ignited a passion for anthropology. While still an undergraduate, Ardren found herself excavating ancient Mayan palaces and pyramids in the remote jungles of Belize.

After Yale, Ardren taught for awhile as an adjunct professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee.

Ardren, who has been on the U of M faculty for two years, knew well the reputation of Little Salt Springs as a "treasure," in the assessment of Dan Hughes, an archeologist with the Sarasota County History Center.

The archeological potential of the site was first discovered by William R. Royal, a retired Air Force colonel and sports diver, in the late 1950s.

One of the most significant finds it has yielded is the carapace of a giant land tortoise with a wooden stake driven through it -- evidence that early Floridians hunted these creatures and that they lived near the springs.

In these "water logged environments like the springs you find preservation that is unparalleled in terrestrial sites," Hughes said. "It's amazing."

A passionate archeologist always hopes to be amazed, but experience has made Traci Ardren cautious. "So much of the archeological record lies where people want to build their homes," she says. "There are hundreds of sites being destroyed every day by development.

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