Archaeological dig near Fairfield turns up fascinating tales

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While archaeological research is normally a slow process turning up only a handful of artifacts, a new survey of woods near Fairfield has turned up a treasure trove of discarded remnants from multiple historic periods. 

Dr. Willet Boyer, an archaeologist, displays stone implements made of Chert, which he believes were made by the ancient relatives of the Timucuan Indians at the Lee Brown Sink site he is studying off County Road 316 in northwest Marion County, north of Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Boyer is studying the 5,000 to 10,000 year old Indian stone quarry which is near the Edwards Cemetery site he is also studying [Credit: Star-Banner/Bruce Ackerman]

Dubbed the Senator Edwards Site Cluster after renowned state Sen. L.K. Edwards, whose family once owned the land, historic features range from signs of early 20th-century commercial use through detritus from 10,000-year-old rock quarries. 

“The important part of archaeology is reconstructing people’s lives,” said Willet Boyer III, a College of Central Florida archaeology professor who is exploring the site with students. 

Boyer’s team is combing several square miles of forest for debris left behind by previous occupants, using their findings to learn more about how the land was used during previous eras and how the people residing there lived. 

A surface inspection of the area has already turned up several fragments of clay “Herty cups,” developed by Dr. Charles Herty between 1901 and 1909 to help harvest pine tree resin for turpentine production without ruining the timber. 

Marion County was a major exporter of pine resin during the late 19th through early 20th centuries, with Fairfield being renowned as a still town until at least 1950. 

Working backwards toward the previous era, Fairfield’s oral history suggests that several homesteads were present during the pioneering days of the 19th century, and Boyer’s team is looking for evidence to support these claims. 

A clearing within the studied section of woods does provide strong proof of former residency, as it holds the tombstones of several of Edwards’ pioneer ancestors, with the last standing tombstone erected in 1884. 

The presence of Herty cups and the fact that local turpentine production began to boom during the late 1800s causes Boyer to suspect that the graveyard was abandoned because the area was repurposed for commercial exploitation. 

Historic records and the dates on the tombstones also imply that the graveyard first saw use between 1830 and 1850, leading him to theorize that the Edwards family “may have … claimed land under the Armed Occupation Act (of 1842).” 

According to Martha Jane Davis, an Ocala caterer and the daughter of state Sen. L.K. Edwards, her family has been in Marion County since her great-great-grandfather William Pitts Edwards brought his wife and children from Georgia. 

That would have been in 1850, although Edwards’ brother is believed to have already been living in the area for four years prior to their arrival. 

“To the best of my memory, the graveyard is located on land settled by my great-great-grandfather,” she said, adding that family records indicate he died in 1887 and was buried in the historic cemetery. 

Dr. Willet Boyer, an archaeologist, displays stone implements of Chert he believes were made by the ancient relatives of the Timucuan Indians at the Lee Brown Sink site he is studying off County Road 316 in northwest Marion County, north of Ocala, Fla. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011. Boyer is studying the 5,000 to 10,000 year old Indian stone quarry which is near the Edwards Cemetery site he is also studying [Credit: Star-Banner/Bruce Ackerman]

In addition to the intact tombstones, some of which are so worn the inscriptions can only be partially read, Boyer is certain the cemetery contains many unmarked graves. 

“The tombs are an indication that these folks had a much greater amount of wealth than other folks in the 1880s,” he said. “Back then, transporting stone, concrete or cement tombstones would have been very difficult to do.” 

Given the difficulty and expense of procuring tombstones, less-affluent settlers commonly made do with wooden markers, which almost certainly would have rotted away over the past century. 

With the landowner’s support, Boyer has contacted the Florida Public Archaeology Network for the use of their ground-penetrating radar, which he will use to identify unmarked graves without disturbing the remains. 

“My guess is we’ll be doing regular GPR surveys here throughout much of the rest of the field season,” Boyer said, noting that each use of the radar will cover a 30-square-meter grid and will take three to four hours to complete. 

Once the true extent of the graveyard has been determined, the area can be fenced off to better preserve the location; plans are also in place to repair damage to some of the tombstones. 

According to Boyer, “one of things I want for our archaeology program is to try to protect and preserve areas like this one.” 

An added wrinkle to the area’s archaeological significance is that it also is the site of several American Indian chert quarries, which saw use during the early and middle archaic periods approximately 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. 

Chert is a hard sedimentary rock found within limestone deposits, and can be worked by knapping to produce stone axes, knives, spear points and arrowheads. 

Although finished artifacts from that period are rare, since they would have normally been used until they broke, the Edwards Site Cluster contains an abundance of discarded leavings from the knapping process. 

“This one part of Marion County is significant because there are more quarries in this area than just about anywhere else in Florida that I know of,” Boyer said. “From that perspective, this region was incredibly important to the Native Americans of that time period.” 

Boyer speculates that people of the time would have traveled to the local quarries from across the state and may even have come from throughout the entire Southeast. 

“Anthropologists call that a seasonal round, where you go from place to place depending on what resources are available at the time,” Boyer said. 

According to Boyer, Barbara Purdy, a former professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, did one of the few professional digs in this area back during the 1970s. 

“A lot of what we know about stone tools is based on material that she brought from that site and others like it,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is follow up on her research.” 

This follow-up has led to the discovery of a previously unknown chert quarry about a mile from the Edwards graveyard and approximately three miles from Purdy’s former dig site. 

Preliminary findings at the new site suggest there were many small encampments around the quarries, with charcoal, chert treated with heat to make it easier to knap, and discarded chert flakes being found in abundance. 

Many of these items will eventually end up on display at the McPherson Complex’s Museum of History and Archaeology. 

“We’re building a collection there from all of the sites in Marion County,” Boyer said. “Things that come from this area, I want to have available here to the folks who live here.” 

Based on his preliminary findings, Boyer wonders whether the various family groups that once used the site were mutually hostile or had friendly relations, as well as how their society transformed over time. 

“Our guess is you have at this time smaller clan or family groups, and they don’t seem to have had sharply divided territories,” Boyer said. “How did these cultures go from the small bands of hunters using the quarry sites 10,000 years ago to the enormously complex and powerful chiefdoms that you see when de Soto came through?” 

“We know a lot about the late archaic period from sites on the coast, but we honestly don’t know as much as we should about the early or middle,” Boyer added. “This area, being so dense with sites from that time, will probably add a huge amount to what we know about what people were doing then.” 

Boyer’s students are equally excited about their work at the site. 

Ciara Pierce is using the college’s dual enrollment program to begin taking college-level courses while still working toward her high school diploma. 

“I enjoy nature, so being able to trek through the woods, find things and know what I’m looking for gives me a real sense I’m helping,” Pierce said. “I really want to make as much out of this as I can.” 

Jared Dodson, a sophomore in Boyer’s class, is frequently on site and so excited by the work that it changed his entire career outlook. 

“We find interesting things here every day,” he said. “Dr. Barbara Purdy said it best, ‘we’re learning something new about something old.’” 

Author: Michael Oppermann | Source: Ocala Com [September 27, 2011]