UM archaeological site receives $100,000 grant

A sinkhole containing several rare and endangered plant and animal species dating back as far as 12,000 years old has recently received a much-needed donation.

The William and Marie Selby Foundation donated $100,000 in support of Little Salt Spring, one of the least explored archaeological sites in Florida. The University of Miami was notified about the donation in late September 2008, but the official announcement was made Jan. 12, 2009.

The donation will be used as seed money toward the $1 million pool the university needs to start developing the Little Salt Spring Archaeological Project.

David Conklin, a graduate student at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), said that future funding will have a huge impact on the site.

“It will allow us to meet our goals of having a worthy research facility to further study the spring and preserve the archaeological material,” he said.

Little Salt Spring, which covers approximately 111 acres in southern Sarasota County, was donated to the University of Miami in 1982.

The site is a sinkhole with a source of water that lacks oxygen, and, because of the absence of oxygen, the sinkhole can preserve organic material such as wood, textile fragments, hair, skin and brain tissue. The spring contains artifacts that date back to early prehistoric times and can aid researchers in learning more about the earliest inhabitants of Florida.

The Selby donation will pay for one of four multipurpose buildings on-site with a classroom, a laboratory and a storage facility for artifacts and equipment. The facility will also cater to visitors.

John Gifford, an associate professor at the RSMAS and the principle investigator for the project, said the Selby Foundation money is only the beginning in a long process.

“This is a start,” he said.

Gifford said the gift is a matching grant. That means that the foundation will match dollar-for-dollar for what UM raises from other sources.

He added that UM President Donna E. Shalala has been knocking on doors of several foundations to raise the $1 million needed to complete the project.

“She is an astute administrator and immediately realized the scientific and educational potential of the site for UM,” Gifford said.

With more permanent buildings at the site, faculty and students will have easier access to the spring and the information it holds.

“Our goal is to pass this information on to the public,” Conklin said.

Douglas Ray, who played a central part in getting the Selby Foundation grant, said the donation will make an enormous difference to the University of Miami and to the scale of archaeological investigation at the site.

“I have been planning for the past 25 years [for the spring to become] a major research center for prehistoric underwater archaeology in the Western Hemisphere,” Gifford said.