Breaking News: Little Salt Spring excavation has given glimpse of past is being closed. By KEITH MORELLI | The Tampa Tribune

Little Salt Spring in Sarasota County, which has yielded artifacts dating from a time of woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths, is being closed because of budget constraints.

Five hundred years after Ponce de León landed near St. Augustine and named the land La Florida — celebrated this year with more than 100 historical commemorations and events — the state’s main porthole into its distant past is being closed.
Little Salt Spring in Sarasota County has yielded more artifacts that shed light on the first occupiers in Florida than virtually any other archaeological site in the state. The artifacts gleaned from the spring in the past 21 years have given scientists a glimpse into what it was like to live here even before the first pyramids appeared in Egypt and ages before de León named the state.
That effort is ending. Scientific divers made their last foray into the dark depths three weeks ago after the University of Miami’s Rosensteil School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, the owner of the site, announced the research facility was closing down because of shrinking budgets.
The North Port sinkhole was an oasis in a semi-arid landscape 12,000 years ago, drawing prehistoric people from all around — people who predated the Calusa, Tocobaga and Timucuan tribes — people who left behind scant evidence of their existence. Nothing much survives a dozen millennia. Wood rots, bones become dust. Archaeologists say the pieces of wood and fragments of bone collected from Little Salt Spring are among the most revealing and intriguing evidence left behind by the Paleo and Archaic period Indians who roamed the land alongside woolly mammoths and giant ground sloths.
John A. Gifford is the Rosensteil School professor of archaeology who has been in charge of digs and dives at the 111-acre Little Salt Spring site since 1992. “It’s money,” Gifford said. “My understanding is that the new dean here, after evaluating Little Salt Spring, decided he didn’t want to spend the $100,000 a year to maintain it. That’s basic maintenance and the cost of a caretaker.”
The cost of the dives doesn’t come out of that budget, he said. Archaeological dives are funded through small grants from the state or from private donors such as National Geographic or the Smithsonian Institute. Attempts to reach the Rosensteil School for comment were unsuccessful.
The closure of Little Salt Spring means the end of Gifford’s association with the Rosensteil School.
“I had planned on doing three more years,” he said, “but because of this, I’m retiring after this semester. The reason I was hired in 1983 was to work at Little Salt Spring. My job was to do underwater research in Little Salt Spring. “I basically bet my career on the potential for that site producing significant artifacts,” he said. Even though lots of work there remains to be done, he is not disappointed in what was accomplished. “I have no regrets,” he said. In the past two decades, less than 5 percent of what lies in the spring has been recovered, he said. But, he said, the artifacts that were found, including wooden tools and weapons and bones, have been important. One significant find was a deer antler that had 28 parallel marks on it, like a ruler, he said.
“It obviously was artificially put there by somebody who wanted to keep track of time,” he said, “since there are 28 days in a lunar month.” He estimates the antler is 10,000 years old.
So much remains submerged, he said, that a clear and complete picture of the civilization that lived then remains elusive.
“We have a really, really small sample,” he said. “In the whole upper basin area, we have excavated only 3 or 4 percent of the total area, which is not really much of a sample. What we can say for sure is that we have a lot of debris on that slope.”
If you could look at the sinkhole from the side, you would see an hourglass, with the surface and bottom about the same diameter and a narrow middle about a third of the way down. The bulging sides form sloped ledges that contain a treasure trove of artifacts.
Gifford said that 10,000 years ago the water level was probably 45 feet lower and the bulging underwater slope likely was the shoreline, where people gathered.

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