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Illuminating the past

Oct 18, 2017
by Bobbie Stewart Photo by Scott Smith, ‘04

Renowned environmental archaeologist Dr. Lee Newsom is unlocking the secrets of Florida’s past alongside Flagler College students. The professor and MacArthur Fellow joined the college last year. She recently sat down with Flagler Magazine to discuss her lifelong devotion to her field, the significance of archaeological work and the impetus behind her decision to move south from Pennsylvania, where she was a professor of Anthropology at Penn State University.

Q: Let’s start with describing what you do. You’ve been named an expert in fossilized plant and wood remains and human ecology in the Caribbean. Your CV includes 10 pages of publication references — more than roughly 150 citations. If you were at a party and someone asked what you do, what would you say?
A: Lately my favorite thing to say is that I’m an environmental archaeologist. I try to encompass all of what I do. It’s the outgrowth of having specialized as a student in plants and animals, in archaeological sites, especially wet sites (those submerged under water) in Florida — not necessarily shipwrecks, although I’ve worked on those, but cemeteries that are around 8,000 years old in ponds. My work is a blend of social and natural sciences. It takes archaeology and anthropology as a social science, but it looks at humans in the context of their environment, at whatever point in time, and focuses on human-environment interactions.

Q: Can you talk more about “wet sites,” and why you’ve gravitated toward working in those?
A: Preservation is incredible in those sites. Florida has long been rich in wetlands, and Native Americans have been living on the edges of them, whether it’s springs 10,000 to 12,000 years ago to along the St. Johns River. A lot of those materials end up in the water.

If you get about 30 centimeters below mucky deposit, in the bottom sediments of the water, you get into oxygen-poor conditions, which precludes most biological agents of decay. Things are sealed. With the “bog bodies” (human cadavers naturally mummified in a peat bog in Ireland), you can see a man’s stubble on his chin and his fingerprints are preserved — all because of the lack of oxygen. And these are 8,000 years old. In the Aucilla River in the Panhandle, they’re recovering preserved tusks from mammoths or mastodons. If you threw a banana in the backyard it wouldn’t last long, but if it were in a pond, in sediment, it could last thousands of years.

Q: And if discoveries are well-preserved, then…
A: Then you suddenly have a much more complete glimpse of a society. On a typical archaeological site (on land), you’d get typical things — ceramics, stone tools, bricks, glass. If you excavated a wet site, then you’d get organic material — wooden objects, seeds, fruits, animals. Terrestrial archaeology might be saying they have a picture of how a society existed, when it could have been just a subset of the complete picture.

Q: What kind of work have you done that has helped illuminate this bigger picture, a broader interpretation, of our history?
A: In one of the South Florida projects, we were pretty convinced that Calusa Indians and their predecessors were strictly fisher-foragers — that there was no manipulation of plant resources, no domestication and no plant staples. But when we went into an adjoining wet midden, we found papaya seeds. They are not native to the area — and we were finding them in the intermediate stages of domestication, and finding gourd and squash seeds by the hundreds.

Q: How’d they get there?
A: That’s the $10 million question. Were papayas bird-dispersed and people in South Florida started growing them? We seem to be looking at gardening and cultivars emerging. Could they (Calusa Indians) have been in contact with Mexico? The big question was: What are the seeds doing here in Florida?

We’re thinking Indians were saving seeds and growing them. We’re looking at the very earliest origins of agriculture in the Americas. It’s cool, isn’t it?

Q: Tell me about your own path into Archaeology. Did you always know you wanted to do this?
A: I think I followed a path that a lot of students do. I always was interested in the natural world. As a child, I would catalogue everything in the yard. In fourth grade, I wondered about Neanderthal people I read about in National Geographic magazine. After high school, I had expressed an interest in becoming an archaeologist, but of course it was an idea poo-pooed by everybody – no jobs and so forth. I went into a paralegal science program initially and got an associate degree and worked with attorneys for about seven years.

That was all well and good, but one day knee-deep in courthouse records I thought, “That’s it. What I like about this job is sleuthing someone’s change of title back through time.” So I quit and went back to school for archaeology no matter what people said, and was very fortunate to meet curators at a museum in Gainesville at the University of Florida who said I could volunteer with them. That led to complete immersion. 

Q: It sounds like you faced dilemmas common to a lot of students. What’s your advice for them?
A: It’s so hard to do what you want when people are telling you other things. What I tell students is to follow your instincts. I tell students that all the time. I also tell them, “This is your chance. Try different courses, see what works. Don’t necessarily decide on a career path right away. Things just kind of work out.”

Q: As for the Flagler students interested in studying with you, what kind of things could they get involved in?
A: I’ll start by taking students along on projects in Wakulla State Park, in the Florida Everglades and on Pine Island. I really want to help solidify Flagler College as a leading institution of environmental archaeology studies in the region.

Q: As a scientist in your field, what are you personally striving for?
A: So much of what I’ve done over time I didn’t ever really plan for. I let things fall into place and I followed my instincts. Intuition plays a big role for me. I want to continue to follow those instincts and orient them towards research. I hope to do a really good job to illuminate something very revealing about the past. I’m really wanting to do more in the way of passing on my knowledge, in student training and growing an environmental archaeology initiative in Florida. Who knows? Maybe there are students here like I was, in the fourth grade studying ants outside and thinking about the plants in my backyard. Our field projects here would be a chance for Flagler students to nourish that. I like interacting with undergrads, and their spark. Sometimes grad students are too trained to think a certain way.

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