Underwater Archaeology in Florida. Part One

Florida is Beyond Anything I Could Have Imagined

Volunteer and Discover!

When you think of Florida, what comes to mind?  There is sand.  There are beaches, rivers, lakes, the ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico.  There are warm comforting breezes, Palm Trees,  and  lots of explorations and adventures.  Who thinks about the past when the present is so inviting?

While training to be a docent at the Brevard Museum of History and Natural Science last year, I spent a lot of time with people who described the Windover Archaeological Exhibit at the museum.  Questions kept popping up in my mind that no one could answer.  Many of the people suggested that Windover was an archaeological first in several categories.  My ears perked up!

The image above is an artist’s conception of one of the 168 (skeletons) graves found at Windover.  For over 1,000 years, roughly 6-8,000 years ago, inhabitants buried their peoples here.  The deceased were buried in a shallow pond, with woven fabrics, and then held down in the pond with sticks.

I had a lot of questions.  Were there other pond sites?  How old were those sites?  Why were the bones preserved but the skin was missing in 168 skeletons?  Did other sites preserve palm fibers or gourds?  Were people sacrificed and then buried here?  Can we detect violence on any of the skeletons? Why did people use this same site to bury the dead for a thousand years?  How does this site compare with bog sites around the world?  Did they find evidence of occupation around the grave site.

The language sounds a lot like Hebrew and was easy to learn,

During my Masters and Ph.D. classes I studied archaeology and planned to be an Egyptian archaeologist.  I still have my Egyptian Hieroglyphics grammar!  But, my favorite archaeologist died in the field because he was too far away from a hospital.  That changed my mind, but it did  not change my love of archaeology.

While working at Converse College, I taught a class in archaeology and even took my students on a dig to a local farm.  And, Tom and I spent several days in Michigan volunteering at the Ft. Michilimachinac dig one summer.  We have also visited archaeological sites from the Terracotta army in Xian, China to Tuzigoot in Arizona, and around the planet.  I was funded by the University of Dayton to work in Caesarea, Israel,  but the dig was not funded, so we visited sites in Egypt, Israel, and Greece.

When I heard people discuss the dig at Windover, I knew I had to find out the facts for myself.  This led me to study as many water/pond sites that I could in Florida.

First, Let’s Talk about Archaeology.  What is it? How do they do it?

Above is a  little exercise.  Archaeologists want to discover the past.  They find objects through surface exploration, or they might use LiDar (Click for definition.) or Google Earth to locate a specific site.  When they find the site, they map off grids or squares and carefully remove one layer of earth/soil at a time.  You can see the top layer/strata is full of recent items.  The bottom later is the oldest and that is where they find the Mammoth. Sites are often dated through examining pottery styles, arrow heads, wooden artifacts, pollen, soil, and more.

Underwater Archaeology

Here is a diver laying out a grid underwater.

Underwater archaeology investigates sites, such as; shipwrecks, harbors, ponds, and flooded land sites.  Because I taught classes about Middle Eastern Religions, I was familiar with some of the work of the underwater explorer and inventor, Jacques Cousteau in the Middle East. But I  had never studied underwater archaeology in the United States.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s self-contained under water breathing devices became more popular and affordable (Aqua-lung was the first.). This led to a slew of divers to begin looking for treasures beneath the seas. Eventually Scuba diving emerged!  Most academics/professors ignored early finds in rivers, ponds, and springs.  They viewed Scuba diving as a sport that had nothing to do with discovering the past.

Holding a basket of bones.

One of the earliest amateur archaeologists in Florida was William R. Royal.  Around 1959 while diving at Warm Mineral Springs and Little Salt Spring, he discovered skeletons.  Today we know that those skeletons date back to at least 10,000 years ago.  At the time that Royal was making these discoveries, academics thought that people had only been in Florida for about 3500 years.  By the 1970’s academics realized the importance of what Royal had found and began to support him and others in their search.



Take a look at this spring.  It used to be more shallow.  It is now 245 feet deep.  Fresh water is on the top of the spring but oxygen-depleted below.  This water preserved the remains of people and animals. Can you see a ledge? or more?  One ledge was at 52 feet and another at 89 feet.  The remains were found on the ledges, even a giant cooked tortoise.

Why is the spring so deep?

Before the great glacier melt,  Florida’s coastline was at least 140 miles wider.  As the seas rose Florida became smaller.  In order to survive, people moved to places where fresh water was appearing.  Little Salt Spring was one of those places.

I am not a geologist, but I have read that fresh-water springs began to emerge, especially in the north of Florida, as the coastline diminished. Peoples began to build their lives around these springs and rivers.

Many of our traditional minds are filled with images of half-naked ancient peoples in Florida roaming around looking for food.  (As an aside, have you noticed that museum specialists always portray ancient Americans as half-naked, even in cold climates.) Reality is much different.  Many modern day archaeologists hold disdain for the term “hunter-gatherers.”  They say it diminishes our respect for peoples of the past and negates discussion about villages and living spaces built by these peoples thousands of years ago.  Those ancient beings were not like wild animals constantly looking for food to survive.

Investigating Ponds

For some reason the peoples in various times in Florida, buried their deceased in ponds.  No one knows exactly why they did this?  Some argue that it had to do with religion?  But, who knows? Most of the people I talked with about Windover did not know of all the mortuary pond sites in Florida.  I began to read and became overwhelmed by the amount of work that had been done discovering these sites.  To help me keep the sites straight, I created a spreadsheet.  The spreadsheet below is still a work-in-progress.

I learned so much.

Some of the pond sites we will consider are marked on the map below.

We will explore Key Largo, Warm Mineral Springs, Windover, Hontoon, Fort Center and more.

The more that I studied these sites and the peoples from so long ago, the more I realized how sophisticated they were.  Below is a map that outlines trade routes that were used thousands of years ago.  The routes are based upon discoveries of items that did not belong to certain regions.  For instance, if you find a certain type of pottery that uses a special soil not found in the place the pottery is discovered, then you know that there was trade.  You know that people were moving around.  Notice the lines below.  Think about how close Cuba was to Florida 14,000 years ago. (Of course it was not named Cuba so long ago!)

Power Point Presentation

I created a presentation on my research, but I think  it is too long for a blog.  The next blog will continue to take you with me on my discovery path of Florida.  Below are books that I recommend.  Check them out of your local library for free or purchase them used from booksellers like amazon.com.  I would highly recommend Submerged History!

Hope you are weathering the virus and political storms we are facing.  Sometimes it is a good thing to take your eyes off the news and discover something very positive, interesting, and challenging in the past.

As always, this post is copyrighted by Marla J. Selvidge

Some of the images were borrowed from the net.





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