Uncovering the past on Big Mound Key


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No roads lead through the deep woods to Florida’s lost Indian village, but that hasn’t stopped the treasure hunters. They have arrived in waves over the years, pock-marking one of Florida’s largest Indian mounds with shovel pits and trampling 2,000-year-old artifacts to dust.

But when some looters on a delusional quest for pirate gold drove a bulldozer through the 23-foot Big Mound Key shell pile along the back bays of Charlotte Harbor, George Luer had to act.

Luer, a Sarasota native and one of Florida’s most admired and reclusive archeologists, has spent the last 30 years quietly trying to reclaim Big Mound Key for science and history. He is finally getting somewhere after spending $850,000 in state state grant funds since 2007 on an extensive excavation.

Luer’s archaeological team has slowly unearthed Big Mound Key’s layers to reveal a village that dates back to Roman times. Their lofty goal: completing the most comprehensive excavation ever on a Florida Indian mound.

Such persistence and devotion to the past are rare in a state that more commonly paves over its past to make way for the newest developments and residents, many with scant awareness of Florida’s heritage.

For Luer, saving Big Mound Key is also personal, the fulfillment of a promise he made to himself decades ago to protect the site.

But the state funding is dwindling and Big Mound Key could soon fall back into obscurity. Much about Big Mound Key and its inhabitants remains a mystery. Few Indian villages in Florida grew larger, yet few have been so ignored by scientists.

Archaeologists have theorized that Big Mound Key may have been an important transition zone for trade and cultural intermingling between the Manasota people around Tampa Bay and the Calusas, a powerful tribe based near present day Fort Myers.

“To me those transitional areas are some of the most interesting,” said Bob Austin, a Tampa Bay archaeologist who works as a private consultant. “When you get on the fringes it’s easier to see interactions between neighboring groups. You get a mix of pottery types and how they structured their societies that can be quite fascinating.”

Yet, for years the piles of shell tools and broken bits of finely crafted pottery at Big Mound Key sat unexplored and unprotected on a swampy plot of state land where the Cape Haze Peninsula meets Gasparilla Sound.

The site is easy to ignore. It is unreachable by land and far from research organizations. Luer never forgot, though.

The 55-year-old earned his doctorate in archaeology from the University of Florida in 2007 based on an analysis of artifacts he salvaged from the looters’ bulldozer trench in 1982.

His dissertation demonstrated Big Mound Key’s importance as a large chiefdom — perhaps rivaling the most advanced Indian tribes in Florida — and helped convince state leaders to provide a grant for further study.

Scientists descended on the mound three years ago. Their journey begins along the docks in the small fishing village of Placida.

Luer’s team loads a flats boat with gear and idles into Gasparilla Sound. They speed full throttle past dolphins and crabbers until a patch of mangroves grows on the horizon.

Team members ease overboard into a small inlet, rubber boots shuffling through murky water toward a narrow gap in the mangroves.

Thick vegetation covers the mound. There are no huts, no stone works or great temples, only hundreds of sun-bleached sea shells, dredged up over the years by looters and littered across the hillside.

Indian mounds are sometimes derided as ancient trash dumps. The tribes survived mostly by fishing. They dumped the shells and fish bones outside their huts and covered them with dirt, living atop the mound.

After the native people disappeared, nature took over. Today, most observers cannot distinguish an Indian mound from any other grassy hillside.

Florida’s humid climate long ago rotted away most of the tribes’ intricately carved wooden masks and statues. Artifacts that can give the best picture of daily life — canoes, hunting tools, fishing nets — have mostly disintegrated, with rare exceptions.

But what remains – large heaps of shell and bones — can still tell scientists much. “I think people are underwhelmed when they see these sites,” Luer said. “They don’t see the potential and say, ‘This is just a trash heap.’ But this is the remains of an entire village. It’s a wealth of information.”

Luer follows a dirt path up the mound to a ramshackle camp site, his home away from home. Large patches of dead vegetation surround the camp, the eradicated remains of invasive plants that were overwhelming the site.

The mound is alive with purple morning glory blossoms, white beggar tick blooms, lime-hued prickly apple cactus and orange-tinged gumbo limbo bark.

But contrasts in the foliage aren’t nearly as startling as the giant bulldozer gash. The bulldozer created a deep trench with crumbling walls that resemble river banks. It also created a sensation.

State conservation officials visited the site and pledged better protection. Newspapers and television stations covered the story, prompting calls for better protection. The looting persisted.

Two men eventually were arrested and the site landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990. But there was no money for thorough research.

Visiting the site soon after the destruction, Luer salvaged the remains of an ancient fire pit. He did not have the resources to work at Big Mound Key full time but the material later became the subject of his doctoral dissertation. His research strongly suggests that a chief lived atop the mound and received tributes of rare animals from across the region.

The bulldozer trench presented an opportunity, opening the mound to exploration that scientists would not normally disturb.

By starting at the trench’s bottom, Luer has carbon-dated the oldest parts of the site to about 2,000 years ago. The mound rises 23 feet above the trench bottom, the tallest point on the Cape Haze peninsula before Europeans arrived.

The trench has allowed archaeologists to study dietary, social, political and spiritual changes over time. Most of his current excavation is devoted to creating a detailed map with dates for each layer in each section of the 13.5-acre site.

Luer had hoped to secure additional grant funds and turn Big Mound Key into a great learning center, a “living laboratory” for Florida Indian studies.

But for a state in a financial crisis, spending money on forgotten cultures is a hard sell — and archaeology has never been a priority in Florida.

Luer’s grant funding runs out in June and is unlikely to be renewed. He has been seeking private benefactors without success. Many of the artifacts dug up at Big Mound Key will sit in storage, undated for now.

Luer is getting anxious. He is a scientist, not a salesman. Convincing people to care as much about Big Mound Key as he does has not been easy.

“These people were right here living and breathing the same air, drinking the same water, how can we not want to know how they lived?” he asked. “How can we not have a historical conscience?”

Author:Zac Anderson | Source: Herald Tribune [February 08, 2011]



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