On a warm, sunny day, about eight miles north of the St. Petersburg campus, students gather at Weedon Island Preserve, an expansive nature area along the western shore of Tampa Bay. The group has excitedly come together to excavate one of Florida's most significant archaeological sites. The location is where Indigenous people lived from A.D. 900 to 1450.
The field school – where students learn the proper methods to conduct digs and identify artifacts - is held every two years and is part of a course at USF called Florida Archaeology. No other university has a course quite like it in the state.
As the students take the one-mile hike through the sandy, foliage-lined path to the hidden site, you can hear the professor giving them instructions for the dig. It's interrupted by a concerned voice telling them to watch out for a baby rattlesnake coiled up on the trail. As they tip-toe around the obstacle, they continue searching for what's called a midden, a mound filled with materials like animal bones, shells and other domestic artifacts.
"We have an intact, Indigenous mound that represents some of the first people that lived in Florida," said John Arthur, a professor of Anthropology at the USF St. Petersburg campus. "Everything together creates a snapshot of how people were living on a daily basis here at Weedon Island 1,000 years ago."
When they arrive, students remove the large boards and tarps put over the pits to preserve the site. Next, they begin digging through the layers of dirt and sand. Anything significant is carefully brushed off, categorized and put into a container. The rest of the debris is put into a bucket and poured through a sifting device, where they look for more artifacts. The students are continuing important research that started on the island 100 years ago.
The site was first excavated in the 1920s by American anthropologist Jesse Fewkes from the Smithsonian Institution, primarily looking for Indian burial mounds. Hundreds of skeletons were removed from Weedon Island. The domestic artifacts Fewkes found are still stored at the Smithsonian today.
Arthur started the unique, hands-on course in 2007. The field of anthropology is made up of four subfields: archaeology, cultural, linguistic and biological.
"I love helping out in Dr. Johns archaeological lab," said Lydia Anderson, a senior majoring in History and Anthropology who hopes to use her degree to pursue a career in historic conservation. "That first, hands-on experience, when an object or artifact comes out of the ground, that's what drove me to pursue archaeology."
On a recent dig, the group found a hand-carved hairpin.
"It was made of deer bone, and it was carved very beautifully. It had lots of parallel incision, and it's something you don't see very often," Anderson said. "There's something about personal adornment artifacts that just draws you close to the person who made it and wore it. That's a very special moment when we find those."
During the dig, students can be heard talking about how great it is to be in the field conducting actual research. One of the most excited is the oldest student in the group.
Ron Matus spent over two decades as a journalist and is now pursuing a graduate degree in Florida Studies. He wanted to take the archaeology course to learn more about Florida's history on Weedon Island.
"I don't take it for granted that it's here, and we get to benefit from it," Matus said. "As we're digging down into this site, more clues are coming up, and every little clue pieces together a story about what life was like here a thousand years ago. It's awesome."