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25 February 2009

Little Salt Spring makes big news nationwide

The University of Miami is spending some extra time in the spotlight, thanks to a sinkhole near Sarasota.

Research at Little Salt Spring, an underwater archeological site gifted to UM in 1982, has landed the school a feature on nationalgeographic.com and a possible upcoming feature on nytimes.com.  The site is anticipated to provide new insight into early Native American life.

“There’s no other university in the country that owns something like this,” said John Gifford, director of the Little Salt Spring research project and associate professor of marine affairs.

The William and Marie Selby Foundation donated $100,000 in support of the spring in January.

Artifacts from the site, such as bone, wood, and stone objects, date to the Paleoindian and Early-Middle Archaic cultural stages, about 6,000 to 12,000 radiocarbon years before the present, according to Gifford.

“We were excited to follow up on our earlier support of John Gifford’s work at Little Salt Spring. The access that it provides to unique and potentially well-preserved remains provides an exceptional window on our understanding of early humans in the Americas,” wrote John Francis, the vice president for Research, Conservation and Exploration at National Geographic in an e-mail to The Miami Hurricane.

National Geographic awarded Gifford’s research at Little Salt Spring a $25,000 grant, according to Gifford.

Two greenstone pendants discovered at the site are currently being examined by Dr. Terri Hood, who has a joint appointment in geological sciences and ecosystem science and policy. These pendants are unique because the type of stone they are composed of is not found in Florida.

“We have them under a scanning electron microscope to find clues about manufacturing techniques, or useful information about their composition to find out about where the stone came from,” Hood said. “This information could suggest trade routes or people’s movements.”

Gifford also notes that, “Continued study of these early, well-preserved artifacts will greatly expand our understanding of the way these early groups lived in Florida just around the end of the last ice age.”

“It is thanks to the efforts of the UM administration, particularly President [Donna E.] Shalala, that all of the recent positive developments involving LSS have occurred,” Gifford said.

The 240-foot anoxic spring also provides opportunities for student divers to put their skills to practice.  Laura Rock, a junior, has gone on roughly 40 dives in the spring after three months of training and preparation.

“We were looking for any sign that humans were there – tools or bite marks on bones; anything organic we would keep. Charcoal, sticks and nuts can tell what the environment was like at the time,” Rock said. “It was a lot of fun and it’s always cool to see what we could pull up from day to day. The whole process was exciting, to see science at work.”

Harris Moore, a sophomore, did excavation maintenance in Little Salt Spring during his Intro to Research Diving course.

“The site is interesting,” Moore said. “It’s a fun place to visit, and it has a distinct feel compared to the rest of Florida.”

Artifacts from the site are currently on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee.

“We hope someday to have a small museum on the site itself,” Gifford said.

Check out Little Salt Spring

The site is located in North Port, southern Sarasota County, a 3.5 hour drive from Miami.

Opportunities for visiting Little Salt Spring are available during the upcoming spring break week (March 16-20).

Contact jgifford@rsmas.miami.edu for details.

Groups of three or more will have priority.