Archaeologists Awarded Grant to Survey Hurricane-Damaged Sites

Pennsylvania State University

When Hurricane Ian made landfall in September 2022, the category 4 storm pummeled southwest Florida with 150 mph winds and storm surges of up to 18 feet, shattering previous records and inundating urban centers and historic sites. A team of archaeologists recently received National Science Foundation emergency funding to survey Indigenous cultural heritage sites damaged by the storm.

“These sites are some of the most well-preserved examples of Indigenous architecture in the southeastern United States and promote a lot of community outreach in terms of archaeological research and public education,” said Isabelle Holland-Lulewicz, assistant professor of anthropology at Penn State. “It’s important to continue to preserve these sites for their cultural significance as well as future research and public programming opportunities.”

Holland-Lulewicz and her collaborators from the Florida Museum of Natural History and the University of Georgia will carry out on-site surveys and generate high-resolution damage and risk-assessment maps for a region encompassing 20 square miles.

“Our target areas around Pine Island Sound and Estero Bay were ground zero for the storm,” said Michelle LeFebvre, Florida Museum curator of South Florida archaeology and ethnography and principal investigator on the grant.

The storm rendered entire communities uninhabitable and left millions of people without power. With an estimated $67 billion in insured losses, Ian was the costliest storm to ever hit Florida, and repairs to homes, businesses and parks will likely continue for years.

The area that received the brunt of high winds and flooding was once the cultural hub of the Calusa people, who lived in South Florida for more than 1,000 years. The Calusa were one of the most politically complex non-agrarian societies in North America and were remarkable for their resilience in the face of European colonialism, LeFebvre said.

Many of the region’s topographic features were built or altered by the Calusa, including large mounds, canals and fish corrals called water courts. The researchers expect that Hurricane Ian damaged or destroyed parts of these structures, particularly among archaeological sites located on barrier and smaller islands.

Many of the sites are located on Pine Island, including the Pineland Archaeological District. The island hosts 67 acres of preserved Calusa shell mounds, middens and the remnants of a canal system. The Calusa Heritage Trail, which takes visitors on an interpretative one-mile tour of the island’s most prominent archaeological structures, received significant damage during the storm.

Collaborators on the grant emphasize that archaeological sites across the region are significant places to Florida’s Indigenous peoples and that all survey information will be shared with tribal communities through regular updates and consultation.

LeFebvre and Holland-Lulewicz will coordinate the initial surveys, which they anticipate taking place from December 2022 through March 2023. Victor Thompson, distinguished professor of archaeology at the University of Georgia, will organize drone flights to conduct aerial surveys during the same period.

Nicolas Gauthier, Florida Museum curator of artificial intelligence, will create damage assessment maps with data from satellite imagery taken both before and after the storm, which he will supplement with photographs from the aerial surveys.

The researchers will use machine learning to trawl though a massive amount of data to find out which areas have been most affected and to assess current and future vulnerabilities to storm events, said Gauthier. The maps will then be made publicly available as a resource for people on the ground to aid in near and long-term restoration efforts.

The researchers also have data about the event itself, including estimates of storm surge and the hurricane’s track. Gauthier plans to combine all this information with models of increasing hurricane frequency, sea level rise and storm surge to map how the area will change over the course of the next century.

Results of the survey will help inform which areas need the most protection going forward. Sites that were hit particularly hard by Ian or that are predicted to be the locus of increasingly severe damage in the future will be earmarked as areas of special concern.

“Understanding how past climatic conditions impacted these landscapes and the dynamic responses of these environments can potentially provide insights into how we might deal with rising sea levels in the future,” said Holland-Lulewicz.

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