The Anthropology Department within the museum was founded in 1952. At that time the records and collections of the Florida Park Service's archaeology division, 1946-1952, were transferred to the museum. Those files include the site files, field notes, reports, photograph archive, and correspondence of Park Service archaeologists John Griffin, Hale G. Smith, and Ripley Bullen.
At the time of the transfer, Ripley Bullen was hired as the first FLMNH archaeologist. His wife, bioanthropologist Adelaide Kendall Bullen received a courtesy appointment to the FLMNH curatorial staff. All of the collections and existing notes and correspondence spanning their Florida careers are housed in the museum. In 1955, William H. Sears joined the Bullens, serving as curator in archaeology. Since that time other anthropological curators in the FLMNH specializing in Florida archaeology have been E. Thomas Hemmings, Jerald T. Milanich, Kathleen A. Deagan, Brenda J. Sigler-Eisenberg, and William H. Marquardt. Collections, field and laboratory notes, and archival materials generated by the research projects undertaken or supervised by these curators during their tenure at the FLMNH are curated at the museum. The bulk of the materials focus on Precolumbian and Colonial period archaeology of Florida. Several collections from archaeological sites along the Georgia coast are included in these collections.
From 1970-1976, Ripley Bullen was editor of the Florida Anthropologist, the journal of the Florida Anthropological Society. He was succeeded by Jerald Milanich (1976-1979). Consequently, collections and information relevant to some archaeological sites featured in that journal, especially sites in south Florida, have found their ways into the FLMNH's collections.
In the early 1970s, the archaeological collections and archival materials stored in the University of Florida's Department of Anthropology were transferred to the museum. Those extensive materials encompass a host of Florida archaeological sites investigated and/or recorded by John M. Goggin, who worked in Florida from the late 1930s until his death. Most of Goggin's field notes from those sites are housed in the University of Florida's P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History. However, some correspondence and research notes are in the FLMNH.
After the death of Charles Fairbanks in 1984, his personal papers and field notes were transferred to the museum archive. His prehistoric and historic ceramic type collections (initiated by John Goggin) are now housed in the Ceramic Technology Laboratory and Historical Archaeology collections at the FLMNH. Fairbanks served as the chairman of the Anthropology department at the University of Florida from 1963-1983 and conducted archaeological research across Florida and Georgia. These collections include material from archaeological sites that were excavated by Fairbanks and Milanich and their students on St. Simons Island, Georgia. The St. Simons Island collections span the Precolumbian, Early Colonial, and Plantation periods and overlap with the Historical Archaeology collections at the FLMNH.
In the early 1980s, William Sears transferred the complete collections, field notes, and photograph archive from his excavations at the Fort Center site in south Florida in the late 1960s and 1970s to the FLMNH. Later that decade the complete data record and collections from the massive King's Bay archaeological project in southeastern Georgia also were made a part of the FLMNH's holdings. That project involved the survey and/or excavation of a number of Precolumbian and Plantation period sites, was undertaken by William Adams and other archaeologists and students working through the University of Florida. In 2001 the King's Bay collections were transferred to the Department of Defense in St. Louis for long term curation.
Since the 1970s FLMNH curators and their graduate students have initiated numerous excavations at archaeological sites in Florida. During the late 1970s six fieldwork seasons were conducted at the McKeithen site by Milanich. These excavations yielded important information about village life and mortuary practices during the Weeden Island period in north Florida.
The discovery of the Baptizing Spring site (Mission San Juan de Guacara) in 1976 was the beginning of the resurgence of archaeological research at Spanish missions by Milanich and his students. Excavations at the mission sites on Amelia Island followed in the mid-1980s. At the same time there was a growing interest in reconstructing Hernando de Soto's route through the southeastern U.S. Efforts by Milanich to trace Soto in Florida resulted in the placement of historical markers along his route. The Tatham Mound site was identified during archaeological surveys along the Withlacoochee River. Tatham Mound would prove to be associated with Soto's entrada and provide a rare glimpse into Spanish and Indian interactions. FLMNH archaeologists also searched northern central Florida for Soto era sites which resulted in the discovery of several Spanish mission sites. Survey efforts located the mission complex at Fig Springs (San Martín de Ayacuto) which led to several field seasons of excavations at the site. Other missions (Santa Fe and Indian Pond sites) were identified and would see further work during the 1990s.
In 1998 Scott Mitchell became full time Collections Manager for Florida Archaeology. Mitchell maintains the collections, integrates new accessions into the museum holdings, assists with loans to other institutions, and provides access to researchers and the general public. In the year 2000 Mitchell initiated a complete reorganization the department's human osteological collections. These remains are maintained as a research collection for physical anthropologists studying the health and lifeways of the prehistoric and early historic periods in the Southeast.
Between 1983 and 2000, David Webb, Curator for the FLMNH Vertebrate Paleontology department, conducted research on submerged localities in the Aucilla River under the auspices of the Aucilla River Prehistory Project (ARPP). These sites yielded evidence of human, animal, and plant life spanning the past 30,000 years. In 2003 the ARPP collections were transferred to the Florida Archaeology collections to be curated with the rest of the archaeological material from Florida.
Private collections donated by individuals and families also represent an important segment of the Florida Archaeology collections. Collections donated by the Burkhardt, Haufler, Hendrix, Means, Ohmes, Simpson and other families include provenienced artifacts from all over Florida. Many of these collections are from well-known sites and are valuable sources of exhibit quality artifacts and research collections.
In addition to the above, the department curates collections, field notes, reports, and other information relevant to site investigations carried out by graduate students working under the auspices of FLMNH and University of Florida archaeologists. Such student-generated collections and archival materials continue to result from archaeological field schools, cultural resource management projects, and thesis and dissertation research projects.