By Liz Lebron
First-year student Michelle Calhoun is working with Sarasota County Archaeologist Steve Koski to update the county’s inventory of human remains for her independent study project (ISP). Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation ACT (NAGPRA) in 1990 to facilitate the return of cultural items to Native American peoples.
In Sarasota, the job of documenting and repatriating items falls within the purview of the Sarasota County Historical Resources (SCHR) office, where Koski and Calhoun are conducting their work.
“[It’s] hard work,” admitted Calhoun, who is trying to decipher classification systems the people who previously worked with the remains used to catalog them. “The vast majority of the collection was disinterred in the 60s and 70s. Folks that I’d love to speak with to answer my questions have already passed on themselves, so I am … trying to create a system where one can know exactly what is where and how to find it.”
Calhoun became interested in SCHR’s work while enrolled in Survey of Archaeology with Professor of Anthropology and Heritage Studies Uzi Baram, who arranged for her to work with the county archaeologist. Baram is the director of the New College Public Archaeology Lab and has collaborated for years with SCHR to conduct work in the lab with his students.
“I have a long-term relationship with Sarasota County Historical Resources,” said Baram, who is Calhoun’s ISP advisor, “having worked with its staff and encouraged New College students to intern in its offices. Michelle’s work for ISP included engaging the details and practices for NAGPRA, hands-on research with the human remains at Historical Resources, and learning of the archaeological sites across Sarasota County.”
Calhoun’s work is not only difficult but also delicate. While she is working with materials that have historical significance for the Sarasota region, the items she is cataloging are also the ancestral remains of local Native American peoples. Baram emphasized the need to treat each individual with respect while cataloging his or her remains.
“Human remains are an ethical issue for my profession and a religious concern with the peoples I work with,” said Baram.
One of the greatest challenges Calhoun faced when working with the collection is inconsistent labeling of its contents by the various people who have worked with the remains since their disinterment.
“For the first two weeks,” explained Calhoun, “I went through each box and replaced old packaging and did verification counts on every single bag in all of the 25 boxes. Some boxes contained as many as 40 or more individual bags, some with confusing labels.”
Calhoun is cross checking her notes with inventory lists provided by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which is in charge of NAGPRA, before seeking clarification on the labeling system from an archaeologist who previously worked with some of the individuals in the collection.
Calhoun, a veteran who transferred to New College this year, will present her work to the Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Historic Preservation Office. She hopes to continue her work at a museum once she completes her degree.
“I’d like to continue to assist in local archaeological work and preservation of historic/archaeological sites within North Port,” said Calhoun. “Lately, we’ve had serious issues there, like destruction of sites without documentation, but the current commission is very open to assisting with preservation of our local history, and I’d like to be available with the knowledge to assist them in doing so.”
— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.