Diane Dobry
Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 9:43 pm

While he won’t be retiring anytime soon, Gary Ellis, founder and director of the Gulf Archaeology Research Institute (GARI), has turned leadership responsibilities for the organization over to former Assistant Director Michelle Sivilich, who is now executive director.

“Sometimes I think it is better for smart young people to communicate with other young people in ways that are more efficient than the way I can do it,” Ellis said.

Since 1991, Ellis has been interested in exploring and analyzing Florida’s natural resources with the goal of understanding humankind’s place within them. That is when he laid the groundwork, operating as Ellis Archaeology, by creating a team of scientists, obtaining equipment, and finding a place to house the operation, and, by 1995, to become the non-profit that is now GARI.

He brought with him not only enthusiasm for this kind of work since his youth, but an education in anthropology from Southern Illinois University and a graduate degree from USF. He was the first state archaeologist for the state of Indiana, a faculty member at Indiana University-Purdue University, and archaeologist for the Indiana State Museum.

“As a young person and professional, I built a template of how I would approach archaeology from a natural, physical and social standpoint to look at the complete picture,” Ellis said. “Our goal is not just research for the sake of doing research, but we need to deliver answers that provide benefits directly to property owners, counties, cities and land management organizations.”

The institute’s mission is to “connect the past to our future.” Its work includes historical research, National Historic Landmark nominations, analyzing and assessing soil and the environment, studying and monitoring coastal change, analyzing and cataloging artifacts, doing public outreach and much more.

“People think we dig and get a pile of artifacts,” Ellis noted. “Conservation requirements are enormous — everything has to be cleaned and put through analysis and go into databases we use that allow us to answer challenging questions about what life was like in the past. This is done for potential application for assisting and protecting resources.”

Their projects in Florida have included helping to find the original location of Fort King in Ocala and investigating Chinsegut Hill in Brooksville, a plantation with a long history dating back to pioneer days. A key focus has been an archaeological study of the Seminole Wars and an investigation of more than seven period forts and six major battlefields. Sivilich first met Ellis when she was a doctoral student studying the Second Seminole War.

“Michelle is one of those people who, during the course of your life, you meet who is unlike other young people going into archaeology, who are narrow in their interests, and you wonder how they will live,” Ellis said. “She is able to maintain research interests unique to her and yet see the big picture.”

Although the transfer of leadership actually took place in mid-November, the official announcement was made Jan. 15 at the Crystal River Archaeological State Park museum with close to 40 guests, including family, friends, Institute staff and board members.

Ellis’ daughter Alexis regaled visitors with stories of what it was like growing up as the child of an archeologist. Friend and board member Matt Clemons commented on Ellis’s work and his unique life experiences, including tasting mammoth meat as a young man.

Sivilich’s father, Dan Sivilich, also an archeologist, described his daughter as a natural at field work, adding that by the age of 15 she was a field school supervisor for Rutgers and Brookdale Community College archeology students.

In her official presentation, Donnie Brown, president of GARI’s board of directors, recalled Ellis’ many accomplishments, including a project to recover the remains of a mastodon in northern Indiana, which was later displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. She presented Ellis with a gift certificate to buy a new office chair, which was met with surprised laughter. On a more serious note, Brown announced the establishment of the Gary Ellis Special Projects Fund to honor his work.

“Through this fund, not only will the work that Gary has established continue in the future, but others may have the opportunity to research, preserve and protect those resources that are near and dear to Gary Ellis,” she said.

“We are starting a new era here,” Ellis said recently, adding he would like the institute to try new things, but not too radically new. “Michelle will be doing that and in that process expanding our social media and website, and doing more public events and public education. We are so excited that she is at the helm.”