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Fossils draw world experts in advance of potential big dig

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Posted: Monday, March 19, 2012 10:11 am

VERO BEACH — Bones - very old bones - found in Vero Beach have brought experts in archaeology, paleontology and geophysics from around the world here, mixing it up with residents and a local fossil hunter who discovered the big daddy of local fossil finds.

Those authorities converged last weekend to examine the fossils and use underground radar in hopes of pinpointing the most promising area to excavate in search of wider treasures.

"If you can give the archaeologists what they need, it’s gold to them," said Dr. Jessie A. Pincus, a highly sought-after geoarchaeologist, as she rolled a ground-penetrating radar device over sections of the 18-acre area near the county’s administration complex, where Ice Age remains known as Vero Man were once found, and later lost on their way to the Smithsonian for analysis.

Scientists are now looking for new bones to test.

"This is a non-invasive way to find out where to dig," said Pincus. "It’s better than leading them to a place where they’re going to end up digging up a mud mound, where they don’t learn anything."

Pincus , an archaeologist currently teaching at Texas A&M University, operated the device over land where in the early 1900s, the remains of Ice Age humans – male and female – were found alongside the bones of extinct Ice Age animals from 14,000 years ago, shattering the thinking of the day that man didn’t appear in the Americas until about 6,000 years ago.

More recently, a bone fragment at least 13,000 years old, with the carved image of a mammoth or mastodon was found by local fossil hunter James Kennedy near the site in 2009.

World-renowned expert in prehistoric art Dr. Paul Bahn came from England to examine the Kennedy fossil and offer a lecture at the Emerson Center over the weekend. Only a month earlier, the Smithsonian’s top anthropologist, Dr. Dennis Stanford, came to lecture to what he thought would be a group of "60 or 70," he said. More than a thousand people packed Emerson that night.

"Every new piece is exciting," said Bahn, beaming as he held the highly publicized bone, the only known example of a manmade Pleistocene carving in the Americas, which has heightened interest in Florida’s earliest human inhabitants.

"There is no substitute for seeing the original," he said, sitting with Kennedy, a lifelong local fossil hunter, and Ron Rennick, a real estate auctioneer and art collector.

Until the weekend, Bahn had only seen photographs of the fossil.

"It clearly isn’t a fake. It’s had every test done on it. You have to accept that it’s genuine," he said.

"It must have come from a living site, must have come from a dwelling, an occupation site," he said before stopping by the site to watch the ground-penetrating radar in action. "If there’s one, then there’s inevitably more."

In 2003, Bahn led the team that discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire.

Another visitor to Vero last week was Bob Carr, executive director for the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in South Florida.

He called the Vero Man site "one of the biggest discoveries in science in the history of North American archaeology."

"It was lost in the backwash of time," he said. "It’s been resurrected and a local group is doing this."

Pincus, with her parents and brother in tow, carried out the work of the family-owned company Mnemotrix Geophysical Survey Systems International Friday afternoon and part of Saturday. She swept the radar device over a 100- by 12-meter area on both sides of a wide canal there, doing a series of transects. The property is near Aviation Boulevard and U.S. 1, and includes a 300-foot right of way along the main canal. It’s close to where one of the original skeletons was found in 1915.

The technology penetrated 25 feet, sending radar down into the earth that eventually reflected off layers of sediment in an effort to find the stratum that is undisturbed by modern hands. The results will take time to analyze, especially because it’s near an aviation site with competing radar readings.

Pincus was satisfied with the data collected over the weekend via a large orange metal box with an antenna attached to it and a computer. The box was attached to a wheel so that the device could easily be rolled along the land. The findings will be available in late April, she said.

"The thing about archaeology is that you are often working with a limited budget," said Pincus, 31, who has collected data in places all over the world, primarily Israel. "The potential bonus is high, the work is very important for understanding our heritage, and that’s the thing we can give to our children." With a smile, she calls herself "the girl with the way to look into the ground without digging."

The analysis is meant to determine exactly where searchers should excavate, a project they hope to begin in October if enough financing can be put together.

The bone fragment discovered by Kennedy contains an incised image about 3 inches long and 1 3/4 inches wide. At first, considerable questions were raised about the authenticity of the image, but exhaustive examination has convinced many skeptics. The bone was found in the general area in which the so-called "Vero Man" skeletal remains found in 1915.

"James Kennedy’s fossil was a big wake up call," said Susan Grandpierre, Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee chairwoman, who was one of a few Vero Beach residents hosting the experts. "It became clear that we had to do something now to protect the site because if we don’t, more things will happen to it."

Also visiting Vero was Dr. Richard Hulbert of the Florida Museum of Natural History, who said that after decades of development, including telephone wiring and various municipal projects, it is important to establish the site’s significance before more time passes.

"It’s got the potential and we just don’t want to lose that," said Hulbert. "That is, before more concrete is laid."

The dig could take several years and cost more than $1 million. Approvals must still be obtained and money raised.

Bahn, author of the well-known book "Journey through the Ice Age," is a BBC commentator and contributing editor to Archaeology magazine. He said much credit belongs to Kennedy, who had the piece stored in a box under his kitchen counter for three years before realizing what an astounding artifact he had.

"I know a lot of archaeologists who’d spit at amateurs, they disdain them," Bahn said. "But it’s the amateurs who find a lot of stuff. They have the passion and enthusiasm for finding stuff. A lot of academics don’t get off their backsides."

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