Bones of Contention

The battle for the soul of the Graves Museum isn't over yet, and Gypsy Graves herself is back in the trenches

Graves wears her gray-streaked dark hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. On this day, as on most, she's casually attired in shorts, a pullover shirt, and sneakers. It's rare to find her dressed any other way.

After 37 years in the same Rio Vista house, Graves recently moved to her new place in Dania Beach. Her house sits on almost a full acre of land at the terminus of 46th Drive. Inside, intricately carved wooden animals and masks from Africa poke out of mover's boxes, while a series of vibrantly colored paintings she bought in Haiti line the couch, waiting to be hung. Directly to the east of her home is the Banyan Bay Marina, owned and operated by Graves' daughter, Kate Gaskill, who also lives next door. "It's the Graves compound," says Gypsy with a smile.

The Graves compound is also close to the airport. Overhead a plane making its final approach drowns out conversation for a full minute. Instead of raising her voice to fight the noise, Graves uses the time to light another cigarette. When it's relatively quiet again, she explains one of her favorite hobbies: chasing solar eclipses.

Ed Petuch knows shells -- and museums. The Graves, he says, is no museum.
Joshua Prezant
Ed Petuch knows shells -- and museums. The Graves, he says, is no museum.
Interim director Charles Zidar: Can't we all just get along?
Joshua Prezant
Interim director Charles Zidar: Can't we all just get along?

"I went through Thailand four years ago for an eclipse," she says. "I've been to eight of them now. I went to one last year in Iran. Hot. I had to wear those damn veils; all the time the temperature was way over 100. Then I went to Ireland from there. The temperature was 60."

In fact she's been all over the world. Graves is one of only a handful of female initiates of the Explorer's Club, an international group of scientists and explorers whose flag has been planted on tough-to-access places like Mount Everest.

In 1985 she was one of eight women on the first all-female team permitted to excavate in Egypt. "We did mainly surveying, magnetometer graphic mapping to prove our instruments," she says in a matter-of-fact tone lacking any hint of boast. "We found a storehouse with 26 intact or restorable pots." She returned to Egypt in 1986 and 1988 for similar explorations. She's excavated in South America, dived to shipwrecks off the Florida coast, and dug up some of Broward County's most important Native American sites. She's been invited by the Cuban government to travel to Cárdenas, east of Havana, this spring to excavate a site that could establish a link between the Indians of Florida and the Caribbean.

When a BCAS member traveled to Vatican City to see an art exhibit and found it closed, Gypsy faxed a letter and got the woman access. When an art historian who happens to be a friend of Gypsy's couldn't get into the Kremlin library, Gypsy shot off a missive, and again the doors swung wide.

One of her best stories involves world-famous fossil hunter Richard Leakey helping her get a bag of elephant bones out of Kenya. "By the time I left Zaire and went to Kenya, I had found a lot of stuff," she recalls. "The guide was unhappy because I took it with me. The elephant bones were important to me because when you are identifying bones, you need an actual bone to compare it with.

"I put the stuff in a garbage bag and went to Leakey's museum and asked him how I could get it to the United States. He said, "By God, you should be in jail right now!' Then he said, "All right,' and gets out an application. He is an official collector for the Kenyan national museum in Nairobi. And then he took all the bones and had them packaged and sealed and sent to us in the museum."

She chuckles remembering the story, and the chuckle brings on a slight smoker's cough. "I acquired a lot of things that way," she says.

Graves was born Ottilie Rose Cosden in Texas. Her nickname is a reference to baby's breath, the genus name of which is Gypsophila. The family moved to Kentucky, where she grew up raising and racing horses. She studied medicine at Transylvania University in Lexington but switched her major to geology when she met her future husband, George Graves. They married when she was a junior, and Gypsy earned a bachelor's degree with a double major in geology and biology in 1950.

The couple moved to Fort Lauderdale in 1962. Gypsy had always loved Florida and was anxious to escape Kentucky winters, "which are the dreariest in the world." Her first vocation in Florida was cattle ranching. She owned a 550-acre spread in Palm Beach County, where she kept 120 cattle and a few horses and grew sod. It wasn't a family venture -- George Graves was a stockbroker. The ranch was Gypsy's business.

When the commute to Palm Beach got to be too much -- U.S. Highway 27 was two lanes in those days -- she sold the ranch and became a full-time mom, raising one son and three daughters. Her youngest is now 38 years old, her eldest 49.

In the late '70s, she went back to school at FAU and joined the Broward County Archaeological Society. Her kids were in school by then, and her friends were into pastimes far too sedate for Graves' taste. "They were out playing golf," she says. "That wasn't for me." She got her master's in anthropology in 1982 and followed it with a second bachelor's (also in anthropology) in 1983.

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