Harry and Jackie Piper: St. Pete’s Archeological Detectives

I met Harry Piper at the St. Pete Racquet Club. For the tennis uninitiated, we have something called changeovers. After two games of tennis, everyone sits for a few minutes. During a changeover, I asked Harry what he did before he retired. “Archeologist,” he replied, awaiting the quizzical look and follow-up questions. Over a series of changeovers, I learned that Harry and his wife Jackie, now retired, were archeologists for hire who earned their living by delving, digging, and scuba diving into Florida’s past.

Harry and Jackie Piper

Harry was a senior when he met freshman Jackie at Duke University. After college, Harry went into the military. When he was discharged from the navy in Jacksonville three years later, he went to visit Jackie in St. Pete. Harry had job opportunities back home in Tennessee, but he liked St. Pete; and clearly, he eally liked Jackie. Jackie had just graduated and had a line on a US State Department job in Europe. Long story short, the Europe job never happened, Harry found work in St. Pete, and the two were married in 1960.

The post-war years were good for St. Pete and the Pipers. Harry opened up his own insurance agency. Jackie worked as a retail securities broker for Goodbody and Company. Harry and Jackie were both good at what they did, and they enjoyed their work. But, by the early 1970s, they began to feel like they weren’t learning anything new. At the time, Harry was in his early 40s, and Jackie in her late 30s. They also had a mortgage and two kids still in school. But they decided to embark on a new career.

They both loved history, anthropology, and archeology, so they decided to let their hearts steer their job choice. They enrolled in the University of South Florida Tampa master’s program in anthropology with a concentration in archeology. For their thesis research, they secured paid internships with the US Forest Service. Their task was to determine the presence of any significant archeological or historical resources along the path of a planned road across the ridge tops of Virginia’s Jefferson National Forest.

They did their fieldwork in the summer. Their children, nine and eleven at the time, came along and got very good at spotting artifacts. The first year, the couple was able to get their thesis research done and their degrees awarded. The Forest Service hired them for another year to finish the project.

Historic Fort Brooke

The Pipers returned to St. Pete, set up an office in one of their bedrooms, and announced the creation of Piper Archeological Research. Before the Pipers came along, if you needed an archeologist in Florida, you most likely called a museum or a university. Even Indiana Jones had a professorship at fictional Marshall College in Connecticut to pay the rent when he wasn’t tomb raiding. It’s very possible that Piper Archeological Research was among the first standalone archeological consulting firms in the Southeast.

The Pipers benefitted from a growing movement to preserve the nation’s archeological heritage. The National Historic Preservation Act passed in 1966. The new law created the National Register of Historic Places, the list of National Historic Landmarks, and the State Historic Preservation Offices. This law continued to be expanded, and state and local governments developed their own guidelines for historic preservation. Today, the City of St. Pete’s guidelines reference the Piper’s 1978 archeological survey of urban redevelopment areas.

Wooly Mammoth at Silver River Museum

It didn’t take long for the Pipers to get busy… really busy. At one point, they employed 65 archeologists and support people. Clearly, they weren’t working out of a bedroom anymore. The company’s work ranged from initial site assessments to planning and implementing major mitigations. One of the cornerstones of the Piper’s success was their creativity in finding ways to preserve significant historical sites and resources while still making it possible for construction to proceed.

The Pipers and their crew spent most of their time in Florida. In 1980, the company was hired to investigate a four-block redevelopment area in downtown Tampa where site preparation revealed human skeletal remains as well as many other artifacts. It was known that Fort Brooke, built during Second Seminole War, was in the vicinity. The Pipers previously had located the hospital for the fort. Now, the site in question turned out to be the location of the Fort Brooke cemetery, which included the remains of soldiers, civilians, and Native Americans. Following forensic analysis, the soldiers and settlers were reburied in Tampa, while the Native American remains were turned over to Seminole nation officials to be interred on reservation land. Today a parking garage and hotel occupy the site.

I asked Harry and Jackie if they had any “Indiana Jones moments.” They weren’t quite sure what I meant. But then Harry responded: “If you mean any exciting discoveries, sure! A lot.” Over the years, they have found many ‘contact sites’ – places where the earliest European explorers first came in contact with Florida’s aboriginal peoples.

The Pipers are both recreational scuba divers and put their diving skills to good use as part of a crew that did a technical assessment of a 10,000-year-old human burial site 40 feet under water at Warm Mineral Springs in North Port, Florida. The Pipers dove down to 400-year-old ship wrecks hoping to glean evidence of trade routes and the cargo being carried. They were on the team that surveyed three wooly mammoth skeletons on the bottom of Silver River in Silver Springs, Florida. There was a stone spearhead imbedded in one of the mammoth bones.

Jackie on an archeological dive in Bermuda

In yet another exciting discovery, the Pipers worked with the owners of a residential development site on Amelia Island who thought their land might have archeological significance. The Piper’s crew excavated down and quickly found remains of early American colonial structures. They dug a little deeper and found a British plantation house. They kept on digging and found evidence of a Spanish mission. When they went even deeper, they found extensive evidence of an aboriginal Yamassee village complete with ceramics and a burial ossuary. The owners of that site had no idea that they were standing on an archeological layer cake that went from today back to pre-Columbian times. Over the years, the Pipers developed such an encyclopedic knowledge of Florida’s early and ancient history that they won a state grant to write a heritage travel guide for Florida, which AAA Auto Club South published.

Harry sorting artifacts with Dr. Jim Harshbarger.

The Pipers told me that their ability to contribute new knowledge to the Florida archeological record was what fueled them more than anything else. The journal of the Florida Anthropological Society, Florida Anthropology, has dozens of scholarly articles written by the Pipers. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it would be hard to have a discussion about Tampa area archeology and not mention the Pipers.

Although the Pipers were never chased by spear-throwing aborigines, fought the Nazis, or found anything on the scale of the Lost Ark, I think a quote from Indiana Jones would resonate with them: “If you want to be a good archeologist, you gotta get out of the library!”