At Weedon Island lab, piecing together the past

ST. PETERSBURG — After more than four decades of archaeological work, Bob Austin can’t handle the Florida summers like he used to.

For years, he loved digging into the ground and excavating multi-thousand-year-old artifacts. But now, at age 68, Austin’s body limits most of his work to the other aspect of archaeology, the one spent indoors studying the artifacts, compiling data and piecing together history to uncover what life looked like thousands of years ago.

That Austin is able to do this with ancient, mostly broken pieces of pottery or stone tools is what has drawn him to archaeological work for his entire professional life. He doesn’t need to be outside digging, even if he’d prefer to be.

“One of the things I’ve always liked about it was that you have that fieldwork part, but you also could involve your brain and your intellect,” Austin said. “What really keeps bringing me back is trying to figure stuff out.”

One of 11 board members of the nonprofit Alliance for Weedon Island Archaeological Research and Education (AWIARE), Austin is an expert on lithic technology, or how ancient stone tools were made and used. He received his Ph.D in anthropology from the University of Florida in 1997.

Austin still consults for his former employers, private archaeology companies around Florida, while volunteering for AWIARE. The alliance gets most of its funding from individual donations and the occasional grant.

Many of the rooms at the AWIARE lab on Weedon Island are filled with old artifacts — spearheads, shards of pottery, animal bones. Some are laid out on a large table, a collection of items donated over the years to AWIARE and the Weedon Island Preserve Cultural and Natural History Center.

Austin and the lab’s other volunteers are organizing the artifacts so they can compare them to items already stored in the lab. That process will help uncover where the donated items came from and perhaps clarify what purpose they served.

One of the volunteers at the lab,…

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