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    Searching for buried history

    Beneath the contaminated soil at the Stauffer Superfund site lie clues to the land's use by prehistoric American Indians. As they collect “the ultimate show-and-tell bag,” two archaeologists are trying to put the puzzle together.

    [Times photos: Brendan Fitterer]
    David Butler, left, and Scott Bierly of Archaeological Consultants Inc. of Sarasota, sift through dirt at the Stauffer Chemical Company Superfund site in Tarpon Springs on Monday.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times, published February 20, 2001


    TARPON SPRINGS -- Each shovelful of sand provided new clues. Shards of pottery. Flakes of limestone. Shells.

    On Monday, two field archaeologists began digging a series of holes in the Stauffer Superfund site as part of a survey to determine the location and significance of two prehistoric American Indian mounds.

    photo
    Many flakes of fossilized limestone, which generally chip off a larger piece during the construction of a tool, were found during Monday's dig.
    That information could prove crucial as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves forward with its plans for cleaning up the contaminated soil at the former phosphorus processing plant.

    The findings are also of great interest to the American Indian Movement, particularly if either should turn out to be a burial mound.

    "If it's a burial mound, it should be given the respect that every other cemetery has," said Ruby Beaulieu, AIM's Pasco County director.

    Even if they are not burial mounds, if the survey uncovers unique artifacts, the mounds still could be considered archaeologically significant, and therefore off-limits, said Scott Bierly. Bierly is a field archaeologist for Archaeological Consultants Inc., the Sarasota company hired to perform the survey.

    It is still too early to tell whether the sites are significant, Bierly said; nothing unearthed Monday fit that description. Mostly, the archaeologists found artifacts consistent with a midden, the equivalent of a prehistoric trash mound.

    In a hole dug near the border with the Meyers Cove development, researchers found numerous small shards of pottery and flakes trimmed from fossilized limestone used to make stone tools. All the items were placed in plastic bags and labeled. Later, they will be washed, weighed and cataloged.

    "We have the ultimate show-and-tell bag," said David Butler, the other field archaeologist.

    Bierly and Butler will dig hundreds of holes on the 130-acre site during the next two weeks. They will take extra precautions when digging in areas contaminated with phosphorus, which ignites when it makes contact with air.

    Although all of the site will be tested with intermittent borings, the archaeologists will concentrate on the two areas that state records list as prehistoric Indian sand mounds.

    Sand mounds were typically used by Indian cultures for one of three purposes: as bases on which to build their homes and to protect them against floods; as temples, which served as the residences for the chiefs; and as burial mounds.

    Previous surveys of the mounds, one of which dates back to 1880, were inconclusive at best. But they are a good guide to start with, Bierly said.

    Stauffer site manager Frank McNeice said the survey will enable the company to locate and assess the mounds.

    By digging test holes about 20 inches wide and just more than 3 feet deep, Bierly said, archaeologists can approximate the intensity of the property's use without digging up bones or otherwise damaging artifacts.

    The Stauffer site could contain Indian burial sites, he said, but once the archaeologists define the boundaries of the mounds, they might not do any more work to determine what the mounds were used for.

    If the cleanup plan would not affect the areas determined to be the Indian mounds, McNeice said, then they will be left alone.

    "The whole idea is not to disturb it," Butler said. "Ideally, we'd never have to test there."

    Sheridan Murphy, executive director of AIM of Florida, agrees.

    "If it's left alone, we're very happy," Murphy said.

    One of the sites is thought to be on the high ground just west of the office building near the entrance, on the south side of Anclote Road. The other is on the north side of Anclote Road in the slag pit area.

    The slag area already is a disturbed area, McNeice said.

    "What may have been there in the past may have been disturbed by site operation," he said.

    The site south of Anclote Road has largely been untouched by the plant's operation, McNeice said.

    But what if either of the areas is determined to be a burial mound and is marked for removal or cleanup?

    "I don't know the answer to that," McNeice said. "We'll have to see what we find and what the significance is. We don't know what we may find."

    AIM would take a hard stance against disturbing a burial site for any reason, even cleanup of toxic soil, Murphy said.

    "We are not going to tolerate the disturbance of a burial site or cemetery," Murphy said.

    He would be less concerned if the site were merely a trash midden, he said, unless archaeologists were to turn up artifacts of cultural significance.

    He thinks that Stauffer and the EPA will do the right thing.

    "I think they've listened to our concerns so far and are acting in a prudent manner to see what's there," Murphy said.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or farley@sptimes.com.

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