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12,000 year old discovery made at Little Salt Spring

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« on: August 26, 2007, 09:44:59 pm »

Life existed more than 9,000 years ago

Discovery made at Little Salt Spring

Little Salt Spring ranks as one of the major archaeological sites in the western hemisphere. Even though only 5 percent of the spring has been explored, divers have found artifacts dating back 12,000 years ago.

NORTH PORT -- After thousands of years underwater, a handful of North Port's history resurfaced in a Ziploc bag.

"They don't call it hardwood for nothin'!" said Steve Koski to John Gifford after the two emerged from the Little Salt Spring with a radiocarbon sample last week.

Koski, an archaeologist at Little Salt Spring Research Facility, off Price Boulevard, mumbled this to his teammate while the two were 40 feet underwater. But Gifford, research director for Miami University, was unable to hear as his knife chiseled away at a piece of wood the team believes to be at least 9,000 years old.

Both men spent 30 minutes in the spring Thursday taking two samples from a log nearly 3 meters long. One will determine the age of the wood and the other the species.

"I don't want to get my hopes up, but I'd love for it to be something great, like a totem," Koski said.

Although a totem pole would be impressive in size, Koski has been thrilled to find artifacts that fit in the palm of his hand.

Pointing to a wooden stake a little more than a foot in length resting in a plastic container filled with spring water, Koski picks it up and examines the pointed tip.

"This small wooden stake took 48 minutes to excavate and bring to the surface. Its tip was the only thing sticking out of the sandy clay sediment. Can you believe it's estimated to be 10,500 years old?" he asked. "With this and other findings, we can look at the distribution of the stakes identified and perhaps see why they were carved and what their function might have been."

However, the most interesting fact is that it was found right in the backyard of "our homes," Koski said.

Little Salt Spring is not just another spring in North Port. Not a lot of people even know about it or the unique history it contains. Koski said this spring is one of the greatest archaeological finds in the country.

Located near Heron Creek Middle School, Little Salt Spring is a 250-foot-deep sinkhole on 112.5 acres of property owned by the University of Miami since 1982. The hourglass-shaped spring was first discovered as an archaeological site in 1959 by local divers.

"There is evidence of visitation and occupation from 12,500-6,000 years ago," Koski said.

Working on the slope of the 78-meter basin-like depression, Koski and other University of Miami divers are trying to uncover evidence of previous life.

"We have discovered a wide range of preserved organic materials including wooden stakes, textile fragments (delite), deer remains and bone tools. Because there is no dissolved oxygen in the water, bacteria cannot grow and decompose wood and the other organic materials, offering unique artifact preservation," Koski said.

In June 2005, Dr. John Gifford of the University of Miami/Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a group of graduate students discovered two Archaic artifacts, estimated to be 7,000 years old. One was a greenstone pendant and the other was believed to be part of a spear-thrower.

Fourteen days out of the year, five to 12 advanced undergraduates and graduate students from the University of Miami come to Little Salt Spring. Students participate in daily underwater excavation at 20-40 feet, as well as surface support activities relating to diving.

Last year, Gifford and his colleagues and students also unearthed two stakes and brought one of the two to the surface, which they estimated was at least 10,000 years old.

"Since 2004, we have found eight wooden stakes and recovered four of the eight. We have removed two of them for radiocarbon dating and we're leaving the other ones," Koski said. "We take a conservation ethic in our work. We wouldn't have the site anymore if we took everything we found."

They are also planning an additional excavation on the 27-meter ledge to uncover extinct Pleistocene fossil remains and 12,000-year-old artifacts that lay there. However, because funding is so limited, researchers are able to perform excavations only once or twice a year, so only 5 percent of the spring has really been explored.

"This is the most important archaeological site in the United States and it's right here in North Port's backyard. This is also the only opportunity in the U.S. for college students to do fieldwork in prehistoric underwater excavation," Gifford said. "We have so much potential to make this site one of the best archaeological facilities, but the funding just isn't there. At this point, we don't even have the most basic necessities like running water."

For more information on group tours or volunteer opportunities, call Steven Koski at 941-423-0835.

You can e-mail Kharli Rose at


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