Archaeology students search for artifacts in Florida's Panhandle

By Jeremy Morrison
Chipley, Florida (AP) 12-07

Kristy Mickwee is in a hole. But she is in no hurry to climb out; this hole has yielded treasure. “Most of it came from this lighter area,” she said, pointing out the different layers of earth with her spade.

Mickwee is part of a University of West Florida archaeology team surveying 168 acres of the Falling Waters State Park in Chipley. During the past few weeks, the team has dug the park full of “shovel tests” in search of Native-American artifacts. Fieldwork was extended because of the bountiful findings.

“I think I would have had problems prying them out of here,” said John Phillips, an archaeologist with the UWF Archaeology Institute.

Phillips was excited about the opportunity to dig in Chipley. He said he believes the inland areas of Florida, particularly in the Panhandle, have not received the attention they deserve compared with more archaeologically popular coastal sites.

“The Piney Woods area of Florida needs a little bit of attention,” he said. “There’s a story to tell here.”

Part of that story was spread over a park picnic table, precious antiquities stashed in Ziplock bags, each meticulously labeled, holding clues to the past.

“When we get these counted, I guarantee it’s gonna be 300,” said Chris Mickwee, Kristy’s husband and the UWF graduate student overseeing the Falling Waters fieldwork.

Inside the Ziplocks are bits of ceramic pottery and arrowheads, ho-hum items each passing century has deemed increasingly precious. Perhaps indistinguishable to the untrained eye, these artifacts help archeologists map history.

“Prehistoric ceramic styles change like Detroit changes car styles,” Phillips said.

He holds up various pieces, each hailing from a different stratum of time. The artifacts range from 1,000 to 1,500 years old.

The people who crafted these finds are not too different from modern-day man. For example, they enjoy the same camping spots; many of the artifacts were located in what currently are state park campsites.

“I like to establish continuity from the past to the present,” Phillips said, adding that the park’s namesake, a 100-foot waterfall, probably was as big an attraction centuries ago as it is today. “It’s an ideal spot for people to come.”

The archaeology survey also turned up some more recent relics: a Civil War-era grist mill and the remnants of an oil well from 1919 and “Barry’s Wine Shop,” left over from the 1890s railroading days.

“What do you do when you work on the railroad? You probably play cards, have a drink and beat somebody up,” said Scott Sweeney, a park service specialist at Falling Waters. “It was called Barry’s Wine, but it was probably more like what you’d find out in the woods.”

“Shine,” Phillips added.

Sweeney was the catalyst for this survey. The park specialist contacted UWF 15 months ago. More than $45,000 in state grants followed.

“Part of our job is to interpret the state park,” Sweeney said. “If we don’t know what’s here, it’s kind of hard to interpret.”

The findings of this survey will be used to learn more about the area’s early inhabitants. That information will be used to create interpretive displays in the park.

“It’s gonna allow us to understand a little bit more about why people were here and what they were doing,” Phillips said of the survey. “People are crying for information about their past. The public is hungry for it.”

Surprise find

But the team saw something at Falling Waters, a mystery no one involved with the archaeological survey has been able to wrap their heads around.

“The cave drawing is up in the air,” Phillips said hesitantly. “What we have is some amorphous things; I’m not ready to say it’s cave painting. It may be; we certainly haven’t ruled that out.”

Off the beaten path, requiring one to climb, crawl and squeeze, are the questionable amorphous smears of red. If it is weathered graffiti, it’s disappointing on several levels, but if it is a cave painting, it’s amazing on just as many, the team said. No other cave paintings have been located in Florida.

“One of our Rangers happened upon that a couple of months ago and said, Oh, by the way, there’s something on one of the walls down there,”’ Sweeney recalled.

The UWF team went to investigate but was unable to draw any concrete conclusions. Samples of the substance were taken and are being studied.

“Whatever it is,” said Chris Mickwee, “there’s nothing else like it down there.”