Why should people care about the threat of sea level rise to Florida coastal cultural sites while dealing with present dangers like a global pandemic? What lessons can other coastal places draw from Florida? We have questions, so we turned to Public Archaeology Coordinator Nigel Rudolph for answers.

The United States is expected to experience as much sea level rise by the year 2050 as it witnessed in the past 100 years, according to a new NOAA-led report

Increasingly dire forecasts are why we at The Marjorie decided to focus on the topic of sea level rise and its imminent threat to thousands of coastal cultural and archeological sites in Florida. We want to understand what lessons other coastal places might learn from our state, which exists on the front lines of this problem. 

In Florida, the efforts of citizen scientists have helped contribute to a robust database, documenting and monitoring archaeological and cultural heritage sites across the state.

But, for many, it can be difficult to stir interest in places like thousand-year-old shell mounds and colonial cemeteries during a global pandemic and a budding international war, when survival is foremost on the mind.

Nigel Rudolph, public archaeology coordinator at the Florida Public Archaeology Network

To help us more fully understand the value of preserving these sites, we spoke with Nigel Rudolph, a public archaeology coordinator at the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) and host of the podcast The Materialists

Q: Nigel, why should people care about the threat of sea level rise to Florida coastal cultural sites while dealing with present dangers like a global pandemic? How do you motivate people to support the work of preservation and documentation?

A: It’s an important question. Why is it important to look at things that are thousands of years old when there are people dying, you know? It’s one of the things that I still have difficulty wrapping my brain around. The key to it is to get people interested, and that’s kind of broad and vague, but it’s still the key. Once people give a damn, they recognize what they have to lose. And I think one of the biggest aspects that I try to get across when I’m doing talks regarding this subject is to explain to folks that these are nonrenewable resources. There will be no new shell mounds ever made—besides the ones made at oyster restaurants (laughs). Once these cultural sites are gone, they’re gone forever. We need to do exactly what you all are doing. We need to talk about it and go public with this problem. 

Q: What lessons can other coastal places draw from Florida? Are there ways to experiment here and find solutions?

A: Down in the Everglades in South Florida, there are members of both the Seminole and Miccosukee that still live the traditional way on slightly higher ground in Chickee huts. They’ve been battling this issue for many, many years before sea level rise became the thing to talk about. They’ve been dealing with the ramifications and how sea level rise is impacting these indigenous communities. I think Florida could start looking into that and speaking to them and getting their perspectives for handling this on a much broader scale. There’s not really a solution. It’s a problem that has to be dealt with rather than fixed at this point. We have to learn to adapt to the rising seas, and they’re doing it very, very well. 

Once people give a damn, they recognize what they have to lose.

Q: What is Florida doing well when it comes to preserving coastal archaeological sites?

A: The Florida Public Archaeology Network was awarded a grant by the state to do monitoring work, so they are at least being open minded about getting a better assessment of how these changes are impacting cultural sites, and to get a better understanding of sites that are already being impacted. So they are investing tax dollars into monitoring and looking further down the road to establish ways that these sites can be preserved, or at least documented. It’s not that the state is doing this. Instead, they provide funds to outfits like FPAN and the university system to do this work. There’s also been investment into understanding how Native American groups have dealt with this in the past. 

Q: What might motivate people in power, especially those at the top of Florida’s government, to act? 

A: Sea level rise is going to have a great impact on the economy. So looking at it from that angle would be advantageous to the state. Ecotourism involving cultural sites draws billions into the Florida economy each year. That is a huge number. There will be a real financial impact if these places are lost. So, this aspect can also play a role in encouraging the state to mitigate the damage and document things before they are lost.

Interested in learning more about Florida’s threatened cultural sites? Here are a few examples: 

Calusa Island

Rachael Kangas, public archaeology coordinator for FPAN West Central Region,  examines threatened shell midden on Calusa Island. Photo courtesy of FPAN

FPAN conducted intensive monitoring at Calusa Island in Southwest, Florida after Hurricane Irma, an intense hurricane that wreaked havoc and flooding on the area in 2017. The Calusa were an indigenous group that inhabited much of South Florida that built huge shell mounds and canals. Today, all that remains is a dwindling number of shell mound sites dotting the Everglades and Southwest coast. At Calusa Island, some of these sites are already submerged or partially submerged during storms and high tides. 

Oleto River

Miami-Dade’s county archaeologist Jeff Ransom (left) and Sara Ayers-Rigsby, FPAN regional director SE Region (right), monitor the impacts of King Tide along the Oleta River. Photo courtesy of FPAN

FPAN also conducted monitoring at Oleta River, where thousands of years ago Tequesta Indians camped on the river’s banks. Today, local archaeologists in Miami-Dade are working to preserve native shell mounds from erosion due to King Tide, a non-scientific term used to describe exceptionally high tides. 

Turtle Mound

Photo courtesy of Florida Memory  

This historic photo shows Turtle Mound, one of the largest shell middens on the East Coast at over 30 feet high. Located in modern-day Volusia County, it was constructed by St. John Culture indigenous groups and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Sites.