By Buster Thompson
Thursday, December 10, 2015 at 9:34 pm

History — how a place came to be — can be easily forgotten in today’s hectic, everchanging
world.

For a group of archaeologists based in Citrus County, understanding and preserving past societies and landmarks isn’t just work for a trowel and screen.

“We have a more integrated, systematic research than just archaeology,” GARI Director Gary Ellis said about his staff researching Florida’s prehistoric, historic and underwater archaeological sites. “By integrating social, biological and physical sciences, we have an opportunity to look at the larger behavior of humans within these large systems.”

“It’s not artifact-oriented, it’s context-oriented,” he said.

Founded in 1995, GARI — the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute — is a nonprofit research institute headquartered in Crystal River. It offers a variety of services, from surveying and reconstructing sites to hosting educational programs, for private and public parties interested in maintaining and strengthening historic sites.

“We can do pure research and thumb our nose at the world and say, ‘Don’t bother us, we wear white coats and we’re scientists,’” Ellis said. “But at the end of the day, you need a solution to something that land managers and property owners can go, ‘I can protect this site.’”

Some of GARI’s recent research topics revolve around the origins of pre-Columbian cultures living near waterways, relationships between indigenous and Euro-

American peoples, climate change and the Seminole Wars, Ellis said.

“That had a dramatic impact on this nation and on the development of Florida,” Ellis said about the Seminole Wars, a series of three conflicts between U.S. forces and the Seminole Tribe spanning from 1816 to 1858. “It also set a lot of precedence on Indian-American relations.”

GARI Assistant Director Michelle Sivilich, Ph.D., has been specializing in the Seminole Wars, studying in a field known as conflict archaeology.

Sivilich’s research indicates how nativistic battle tactics trumped and shaped the regimental formations taught to graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, who served in the harsh swamplands of Florida.

“My argument is that West Point really hindered their ability to operate in Florida,” Sivilich said. “They were leaning very Napoleonic tactics … they kept failing, and it was a really high turnover of officers.”

By looking at a battlefield and determining what its landscape looked like in the past through tools like soil excavation, GARI researchers can incorporate cultural and biological research into their analyses.

“We can look at that and take one side, or we can look at the battlefield and say, ‘Forget about what it looks like today,’” Ellis said. “Then you can look at the battle at a totally different perspective. … Wouldn’t you want to know both sides of the story?”

Through a National Park Service grant, one of the institute’s local projects studies the nature and extent of the Battles of Camp Izard and the Withlacoochee River in early 1836.

By merging field archaeology and data analysis at riverine battlegrounds east of what’s now State Road 200, GARI hopes to address the historical implications of the Camp Izard battle — at which outnumbered U.S. forces were overcome by Seminole fighters — by, say, comparing it to the Battle of the Alamo, where settlers were overrun by Mexican forces.

In addition to reconstructing battles lost to time, GARI also works with governments and historical societies to uncover, restore and display artifacts — from items as small as iron buckles to as those as large as Fort King in Ocala.

GARI is working with Ocala to acquire a $298,000 grant to partially rebuild the 1837 fort, which was instrumental for U.S. troops during the Second Seminole War. As the public explores the reconstructed part of the fort, other archaeologists can still pursue research nearby.

GARI has also been instrumental in tagging certain areas that are prone to coastal flooding or other disasters, so researchers know which sites are the most vulnerable and should be improved in order to be protected.

“Those episodes need to be recorded,” Ellis said about the fragile west-Florida sites.

Ellis said archaeologists with GARI are not just diggers, but advocates for lands and people on the brink of disappearing.

“Resources need advocates,” he said. “There’re advocates for almost everything, and resources need advocates.”

GARI’s funding for research student training is provided through grants, research contracts and donations. To donate online, visit gofundme.com/gulfarchaeology.

For more information on GARI, gulfarcheology.org or call 352-464-4274.

Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916, bthompson@chronicleonline.com or via Twitter @BTChronicle.