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Vero Man dig moving ahead after jolt of Mercyhurst’s withdrawal


The group backing the Ice Age excavation known as the Vero Man dig suddenly found itself frozen out of a critical source of funding two months ago, when the prestigious Mercyhurst University Archaeological Institute withdrew from the project, taking with it the imprimatur of a major scholar key to winning grants and recognition.

But the Old Vero Ice Age Sites Committee now seems to have managed to retain in some capacity two key archaeologists with the project since its inception: Andy Hemmings, an assistant professor at Mercyhurst and the lead archaeologist at the site; and James Adovasio, director of the Mercyhurst Archaeological Institute and dean of the school of natural sciences.

And talks are well underway with FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute to take over where Mercyhurst left off. Harbor Branch, once a privately-funded research center north of Fort Pierce, is now affiliated with Florida Atlantic University. The Ice Age Site committee already works with Harbor Branch’s DNA lab, and paid to use its dormitory to house students working at the dig.

“That’s a much bigger school than Mercyhurst, and it has interest in the project,” says Dick Kerr, board member.

Kerr is optimistic that the project will continue as planned. “We’re going back to the same site,” he says. “Andy Hemmings thinks the materials (from ancient fire pits) were found downhill from where the fires were actually built. That’s the direction we’re digging next – kind of up that incline on the west.”

“Right now our plans are to start in January,” says Randy Old, a board member and Vero Beach City Councilman. “Don’t know of anything that would stop us.”

Mercyhurst pulled out for budgetary reasons, says Kerr. Enrollment has been dropping at the small Catholic school located in Erie, Pennsylvania, and last year staff was let go and pension contributions were cut in an effort to balance the books.

Kerr says talk of Mercyhurst withdrawing its support for the Vero Beach project began in mid-summer. He and Old traveled to Erie two months ago to make their case to Mercyhurst officials, who wanted to know what expenditures to expect in Vero in the long term.
“We’re kind of hand to mouth. We have a hard time committing for the long term since we just go year to year,” says Kerr.  Mercyhurst funded about 40 percent of the Vero dig, Kerr says, with part of that being in-kind contributions like the use of laboratories.

Kerr says if all goes well with negotiations independent of Mercyhurst, Hemmings would once again oversee the dig; Adovasio would have an advisory role.

While Harbor Branch is chiefly a marine research facility, FAU in Boca Raton has a department of anthropology with nine professors and offerings in undergraduate and graduate studies, including paleoanthropology. There are two professors of archaeology, and an archaeological field program in Ecuador.

“We need university involvement,” Kerr says. “It’s hard to have just a local community group that has no assets and has no standing really except as an independent group.”

He says grants have been awarded to the Ice Age Sites Committee, “but that was with the support of Mercyhurst.”

Those grants are about to increase dramatically. The committee was awarded $50,000 this year but next year’s total jumps to $350,000, which includes some funding in matching grants. The 2017 figure is also large, though it hasn’t been formally approved.

Old believes FAU would actually improve the group’s stature. “FAU will have more clout as they are in Florida and they have a huge grant department,” Old says. “We have jointly talked to the grant office and the grant office is pleased that FAU is the picture.

“It’s not a done deal,” says Old. “But it has what appears to be the right stuff to work.”

With few ongoing excavations in Florida, Vero’s dig has the attention of state archaeologists for its potential impact and for the way it has been run. “This dig has been very well led by Dr. Adovasio,” he says. “Give Mercyhurst credit in this: It’s been a very sophisticated dig that has a lot of science behind it.”

He says those solid methods are to thank for information still to come from the two years’ work. Climate-related data like rainfall and other weather may contribute to the understanding of why Ice Age animals went extinct 10,000 years ago.

“There’s no question it will have some bearing on our understanding of the past,” says Kerr. “We’re starting with a very slim amount of information on the Ice Age. Everything we add to this list, that we write on that document that doesn’t have much in it, adds new information and new insight. It’s quite exciting actually.”

The excitement, he says, is what is generating donations from the public – $300,000 a year for the past two years. So far, he estimates that volunteers from the Ice Age Site Committee have “briefed” 5,000 people, many of them at the site itself, located just off Airport Road north of the Indian River County Administration building.

That site, where in 1915 human remains were first found, has remained essentially stable for 20,000 years, Kerr says.

That is about to change. As soon as the dig is complete, the site is slated to be buried in 200 tons of concrete when a new water treatment plant is built there.

County engineers are required to search for archaeological remains first. The Ice Age Site Committee was formed to make sure the search was done right.

Interest amped up after an amateur fossil hunter, James Kennedy, found at a nearby site an Ice Age mammal bone etched with an image of a mastodon, believed to be the oldest work of art in the Americas. But precise details of Kennedy’s find were not documented by archaeologists; in their view, absent context, it means nothing.

Still, it was a great piece of PR for the dig, the tantalizing nugget in a gold rush for fossils.

As for what has actually been found, the most important have been traces of possible fire pits where humans may have barbecued roasts of a pony-sized wolf. Bits of charcoal and cut bone could be from as long ago as 14,000 years, Kerr says.

The team of archaeologists, which included students at Mercyhurst, has yet to closely examine all the finds, many of which are “flakes” of a hard, mostly silica rock called chert; the flakes are the result of sharpening an edge for a tool or weapon.

Adovasio, whose specialty is basketry and textiles, must have been especially fired up over one discovery: a strand of braided string, burned slightly, probably part of a shred of fabric, Kerr says, that dates from 8,000 years ago. If Kennedy’s bone is the first work of art, the Ice Age Committee may have found Vero’s first fashion.