Sifting through the past: Volunteers become archaeologists in Marco Island's 'Big Sift'

Joe Mankowski, center, works with the crew on the sifters. In 'The Big Sift,' volunteers are helping professional archaeologists find Native American artifacts in material scooped from ancient settlements. Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent

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Joe Mankowski, center, works with the crew on the sifters. In "The Big Sift," volunteers are helping professional archaeologists find Native American artifacts in material scooped from ancient settlements. Lance Shearer/Eagle Correspondent

For people apparently a lot of them who harbored fantasies of being an archaeologist, the lure was irresistible. The call went out for volunteers to assist in the “Big Sift,” culling through material unearthed in ancient Native American middens on Marco Island, and citizens responded by the score.

“We had over a hundred people out here the first day,” said Joe Mankowski, supervising the dig on Addison Court. Joseph Mankowski, M.A., RPA, is an archaeologist, and the president of Advanced Archaeology, Inc., of Fort Lauderdale. The Big Sift began on Monday, and will continue through next week, with the volunteer program concluding on March 22.

On Wednesday, things had calmed down a bit, but about a dozen volunteers were working away, looking for archaeological gold among 20 piles of earth and shells scooped out ahead of the sewer line installation in the STRP, or Septic Tank Replacement Program. One of the things you might expect to find in abundance, rocks, were actually a rarity in the material being sifted through the quarter inch galvanized hardware cloth mesh.

“We don’t find rocks here,” said Gene Erjavec, field director for Advanced Archaeology, working on an island which is, after all, composed primarily of shell. “This is a garbage dump we’re digging through,” technically a black shell midden.

Erjavec noted that alligators swallow rocks for ballast, or they might have been intentionally brought to the site by the Calusas or their forebears, who build up the hills of southern Marco Island’s “estates area” over centuries. The Calusas, said Mankowski, were a “stratified,” rigidly hierarchical society, and the nobles lived on the upper elevations of the mounds, with the commoners, who performed the grunt work down below.

“We’re standing in the middle of an Indian village,” among what would have been the dwelling areas of the lower classes, said Erjavec, himself a Marco resident. Here the “worker ants” of the Calusas made the fishing nets, prepared the food, and sculpted the pots.

What is found now is the items that can withstand centuries of subtropical heat and moisture, primarily shards of those pots, bones, and shell implements. Some of the pottery is plain and unadorned, and some is decorated with intricate patterns scratched into the clay, which didn’t start appearing until about 1,000 A.D.

“The decorated pottery, painted or incised is a sign of a more established village, a more developed culture,” said Mankowski. “Some of these clay pots would have been gorgeous.” Earlier settlers during the time known as the Archaic Period, living at subsistence level, didn’t take the trouble to adorn their storage pots and cookware. “Look at this hammer, made from a horse conch. It looks like it was made yesterday.”

“We’ve found shark bones, other fish, turtle shells, gator, and deer. We found the mandible of a dolphin,” said Erjavec. “We’ve found vertebrae, and shells made into hammers and net weights.” The most significant finds will be preserved, catalogued, and added to the collection of the Marco Island Historical Museum. The Marco Island Historical Society, with help from the City of Marco, is underwriting the project.

The volunteers worked in the bright sun, scooping up loads of dirt and shells from the mounds deposited by the heavy equipment, and sifting it through the hardware cloth trays.

“This is how you build up your arms,” said Martin Roddy, hefting a load. Since the Marco Cat has already been found, he joked, “now we’re looking for the Marco Dog.”

The work is hard on one’s hands. Debi Krulik, working alongside her sons Will, 12, and Thomas, 9, said this was doing terrible things to her manicure.

“I just did my nails last night poor timing,” she laughed. Some of the volunteers, such as high school student Andrew Smith, have been working with the professional archaeologists since last summer, when they dug meticulously into the undisturbed soil.

“Andrew has been instrumental in helping us,” said Erjavec. “He has a lot of hours in the project.” At least now, the weather is cooler, but the crews still need to take water breaks.

They also get lunch provided, with a modern stainless steel grill on site cooking up hamburgers and hot dogs for the volunteers.

Mankowski described what the crews are doing now as “salvage archaeology,” going through material that has already been removed from its original location. Along with the rank and file volunteers, the project has attracted assistance from some pros, Bruce Green, a government archaeologist from Connecticut, and John Furrey, whom Mankowski described as “one of the legends of archaeology.”

“We’ve gotten a great response, but there’s always room for more” volunteers, said Erjavec. Work will continue at 1440 Addison Court, a site generously made available by the anonymous landowner, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, March 22. No pre-registration is necessary.

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