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Ice Age archaeological excavation finally resumes at Vero Man site

Photo: Jennifer Wolfgram clears topsoil from the canvas at excavation site.

After one of the rainiest Januarys on record, the Ice Age archaeological excavation known as the Vero Man site has resumed for its third season.

The month-long delay in start-up wasn’t an issue of the ground being too wet, but whether the ink was dry enough on a new agreement with Florida Atlantic University.

“It wasn’t weather. We just didn’t have our ducks in a row,” said Randy Old, who chairs the committee helping to fund the dig.

The agreement replaces an arrangement with Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst University, established when the excavation off Airport Road began in 2014. Last summer, in the midst of financial issues, the university underwent a shift in priorities, and its renowned archaeology department was forced to cut its collaboration with the Vero Man project from its budget.

Fortunately, the two key scientists involved in the project have been hired by FAU. James Adovasio is a prominent scholar in basketry and textiles who was the director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute. Andy Hemmings, who earned a doctorate at the University of Florida, is known for his work on Paleoindian sites and has worked extensively on digs in Florida.

“We have a new memorandum of understanding between ourselves and FAU and it’s still in the process of being finalized,” said Old. “There are just some details being worked out about the legal chain of command.”

Public tours will resume March 1 at the site, considered one of the most important archaeological finds in North American history. It was revealed more than a century ago when a drainage canal was dug and exposed late Pleistocene-era plant matter, animal bones, artifacts and, most astonishingly, human remains. Those remains became known collectively as Vero Man. But they were never able to be studied with the care and intensity of today’s dig.

For commuters on Airport Road, who previously haven’t given a thought to the canal along the road’s southern side, the vast white tent and the flurry of activity have become something of a roadside attraction, drawing hundreds to participate in a new trend in such research: community archaeology.

The management of the project is under the direction of Megan Davis, an FAU research professor who is interim director of Harbor Branch. “The university is really thrilled to be able to help with the discovery,” says Davis. “What gets me so excited is seeing the community participate.”

So far the Vero Man effort has mustered 800 volunteers, Old said.

The digs, which typically start in January and run until May, cost around $600,000. The Vero group shared those costs with Mercyhurst, but still owes from prior years. Old said they have worked out a confidential exit agreement to pay off the balance

Artifacts found in prior years are now in the hands of FAU. Meanwhile, fund-raising for the dig continues, with a passionate group of volunteers being a key source of backing. On Feb. 29, a $200-a-seat gala at Quail Valley will add to the committee’s coffers.

Then in early April, the site will get a boost in name recognition when an anticipated 200 archaeologists will tour the dig as a field trip from the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, taking place this year in Orlando.

“This is a big deal for us,” Old says.

Volunteer sifters are already toiling at the site, which has developed a cult following of sorts. And 10 student interns bunking at Harbor Branch are here from universities as far away as England, not just from Mercyhurst as in prior years.

Monday afternoon, the students were back from a one-day weekend, on hands and knees sweeping dirt into dustpans, removing the last remaining protective fill placed over last year’s excavated layer; heavy equipment removed the rest.

One student named John laboriously measured and tied string to posts in the dirt, establishing a new grid to track the finds. Hemmings was particularly pleased with the precision of the grid: Across a 16-meter span, the string was only a tenth of a millimeter off. “But I just talked to Jim (Adovasio) and he agrees John should be tossed in the canal for that tenth of a millimeter,” the ever-boisterous Hemmings hollered. The others, trudging off with their dirt buckets, offered weary smiles.

For their labors, the students are getting a stipend from FAU that covers their room and board.

That area is exactly the spot that was examined in previous years. It includes an area of animal bones, including the teeth of an Ice Age horse and a dire wolf, and burned matter identified as ancient oak, pine and cypress. Hemmings and Adovasio postulate that the area was once an Ice Age camp fire.

“We can’t figure out any other use for it,” says Old of the burn. “It’s got to be caused by humans. It’s not caused by lightning.”

While a piece of braided cordage was found at a level from 9,000 years ago, and a piece of stone used to make tools was found at roughly the 11,000 year level, so far the camp fire is the only clue from the excavation that humans were present at the layer from 13,000 years ago.

“If the same cordage was found at 13,000, it would be a huge thing. It would be among the oldest fiber artifacts in the New World,” says Hemmings, offering an example of the importance of the physical context of the finds. He also talks excitedly about an area of undulation – a bump – that he can’t wait to get to.

The deepest hole is of black soil dated 22,000 calendar years old.

Meanwhile, materials still being examined at Harbor Branch’s ancient DNA lab under the supervision of Dr. Greg O’Corry-Crowe could possibly provide that proof.

“There’s nothing confirmed yet,” said Old. “We’re still in the study stages. We’ve not reached any conclusions, but we very much hope so.”

As the science of ancient DNA progresses, material from the site, should it prove to be human, could even show which path early humans took to reach this area, since it’s now generally believed not all of the migration took place across the Bering Strait.