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At Weedon Island lab, piecing together the past

Volunteer Bob Austin holds a red chert (silicified coral) projectile point from Hillsborough County that was used at the end of a spear or knife. He says artifacts help tell how different cultures lived.
Published Jul. 17, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — After more than four decades of archaeological work, Bob Austin can't handle the Florida summers like he used to.

For years, he loved digging into the ground and excavating multi-thousand-year-old artifacts. But now, at age 68, Austin's body limits most of his work to the other aspect of archaeology, the one spent indoors studying the artifacts, compiling data and piecing together history to uncover what life looked like thousands of years ago.

That Austin is able to do this with ancient, mostly broken pieces of pottery or stone tools is what has drawn him to archaeological work for his entire professional life. He doesn't need to be outside digging, even if he'd prefer to be.

"One of the things I've always liked about it was that you have that fieldwork part, but you also could involve your brain and your intellect," Austin said. "What really keeps bringing me back is trying to figure stuff out."

One of 11 board members of the nonprofit Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education (AWIARE), Austin is an expert on lithic technology, or how ancient stone tools were made and used. He received his Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Florida in 1997.

Austin still consults for his former employers, private archaeology companies around Florida, while volunteering for AWIARE. The alliance gets most of its funding from individual donations and the occasional grant.

Many of the rooms at the AWIARE lab on Weedon Island are filled with old artifacts — spearheads, shards of pottery, animal bones. Some are laid out on a large table, a collection of items donated over the years to AWIARE and the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

Austin and the lab's other volunteers are organizing the artifacts so they can compare them to items already stored in the lab. That process will help uncover where the donated items came from and perhaps clarify what purpose they served.

One of the volunteers at the lab, Penny Seabury, is cataloguing a collection of documents belonging to local archaeologist Lyman Warren.

After Warren died, his family donated his massive collection of artifacts and papers to AWIARE. Seabury's goal is to create a digital version of the collection that will allow other archaeologists to access Warren's work.

AWIARE's biggest project, and the one that garnered the most publicity, was the excavation of an 1,100-year-old canoe on a Weedon Island Preserve beach. In 2011, Austin and Phyllis Kolianos, another AWIARE board member, led a trip to remove the 40-foot canoe from the ground in pieces. Austin said he also worked with designers to set up the canoe's display, located in the Cultural and Natural History Center.

"It was our really big project," Austin said. "And that's what got us publicity and got us funding."

An artifact as monumental as the ancient canoe is an anomalous discovery; most of AWIARE's work involves items of lesser significance. But they each offer a glimpse of Florida's prehistoric era. Austin's job is to figure out what the shards of pottery or worn-down stone tools might reveal.

That process is tricky for even the most experienced archaeologists. Interpreting old artifacts and data such as measurements and locations requires a large amount of guesswork. But the results can be revealing.

"It helps you understand how different cultures, people who belong to different cultures, lived," Austin said. "That there are differences between cultures, but there's also a lot of similarities."

One advantage of archaeological research that is different from other methods of studying history is its capacity to reduce historical bias, Austin said. While those in power often dictate what is remembered, they have little say in what gets discovered thousands of years later underneath the ground.

"History is written by the winners," Austin said. "And history is slanted. People forget things, or they don't want to talk about certain things, or they want to slant things a certain way."

To express this point, Austin likes to use an adage from the late Florida archaeologist Calvin Jones: "The dirt don't lie."

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