Local mounds spark curiosity and research

  • What is that mound? University of Florida scientists who studied Amelia Island in the 1950s referred to mounds being mapped and excavated through the 1800s and early 20th century. The UF team mapped about 50 major sites on the island where Native American artifacts and burials were found. STEVE GIBBS/SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-LEADER
    What is that mound? University of Florida scientists who studied Amelia Island in the 1950s referred to mounds being mapped and excavated through the 1800s and early 20th century. The UF team mapped about 50 major sites on the island where Native American artifacts and burials were found. STEVE GIBBS/SPECIAL TO THE NEWS-LEADER

STEVE GIBBS / Special to the News-Leader

Curiosity may have killed the cat but it can also lead to adventure.

For the 50 years that I lived in Key Largo, I explored the Everglades, Big Cypress Swamp, thousands of mangrove trails and Fakahatchee Strand. We usually began at about five in the morning. Often my hiking buddy and I would divert from the trail and wade through sawgrass to explore a cypress dome or a hidden lake.

We were simply curious as to what surprises nature might offer.

Curiosity led us to panther tracks embossed in mud, families of wild hogs, black bears, scat from various animals including alligators, amazing flowers and epiphytes (colorful air plants), and an occasional splatter of bones and fur. We stumbled onto old abandoned camps deep in the woods, rusted-out Model T Fords, and once, very briefly, a still. More recently we encountered well-hidden Burmese pythons.

But one doesn’t have to go to the Everglades for adventure. There’s plenty of adventure here on Amelia Island if you are willing to get off the beaten path.

By foot, we can explore the Egans Creek Greenway, Fort Clinch, and miles of beach while looking for sharks’ teeth. By kayak, we can explore the miles of navigable creeks and offshoots of the Amelia and St. Marys rivers. Recently, while driving east on Jasmine Street toward the beach and not far from Egans Creek Greenway, I noticed a mound just visible from the road. My curiosity got the better of me, so I set out to explore what I hoped might be a mound from the native Timucuan people.

No matter how enthusiastic I am, I try to be realistic, so my hopes are not too high. Still, knowing that Native Americans inhabited this area for more than 12,000 years, my curiosity is intensified.

I park my truck well off the road, grab a small shovel and my machete, and leap over the yard-wide black muck ditch that parallels Jasmine. I am conscious that the verdant mound ahead might simply be a pile of dirt from the digging of the storm water drainage ditch that parallels the road. But that is no deterrent.

I slowly make my way through thick vines and Virginia creeper toward the mound. The mound’s sandy surface is completely covered in vegetation.

Vines hanging from the oaks above prevent easy access from the road, so I circle the mound and make my way to it from the backside.

A hawk screeches my arrival. I move ahead slowly, quietly.

Ahead of me on the ground, I find gray and white fur that reveals the remains of some mammal, too decomposed to identify. Cardinals and other small birds flit around the brush while a clutch of ibis feed in the mud nearby.

As I begin to climb, I am encouraged by spotting a few oyster shells scattered around the base of the mound. The shells remind me of the Calusa Indians, a similarly tall and robust people who lived in South Florida during the same time that the Timucuans occupied this region.

The Calusas discarded their oyster shells in piles like this and, over time, created mounds similar to what I now climb, only those were built almost entirely of oyster shells. In the oyster mounds were found pottery shards and additional artifacts providing insight into the Calusa culture.

Here, I find only a few shells at the base of the mound. I conclude this area may have been flooded at one time. It is definitely not a shell mound.

We can glean a lot about extinct cultures from digging in their trash dumps (I wonder what future beings will think of us 8,000 years from now when they dig up a “Mount Trashmore”).

With anticipation, I dig into the sand in several places but the size of the mound limits my ability to fully explore it. Everywhere I dig, I find dark sand, nothing more.

I leave, knowing that I’ll be back.

As I walk to my truck, I think how neat it would be to go back in time and talk with
these people and better understand their culture. By all accounts, their needs were the same as our own: food, clothing, shelter from the elements. Only they could not drive to Publix or Harris Teeter. As well, they had no pharmacies but their shaman could cast a spell, break a fever and cure an itch with the use of natural herbs and barks. Their aspirin came from the willow bark tree; goldenrod helped abate coughing; witch hazel was used for itching; buttonbush for a toothache. These are a few examples of their knowledge of the natural world.

Man’s presence here does not go back as far as the sharks’ teeth that hide among the shells on the beach, but pre-Columbian people have lived here for thousands of years. However, enslavement by the Spaniards and their lack of immunity to European disease effectively exterminated Timucuans during the 16th century.

Ancient middens and mounds have been explored on Amelia Island for at least 400 years, during the time of the “eight flags.” Modern development has buried and obliterated most of the evidence, but layers of sand and vegetation yet to be discovered hide evidence of native peoples.

“Nearly all of Oldtown, the original settlement of Fernandina, was built on an Indian village, located on a high bluff overlooking the Amelia River,” according to John W. Griffin and Ripley P. Bullen in their 1952 survey entitled An Archaeological Survey of Amelia Island, Florida. “Shells and occasional sherds are scattered over forty acres, but the heaviest concentrations and greatest depth are at or near the Plaza lot, where the bluff meets the river,” Griffin and Bullen add, quoting from a 1922 dig. “Here excavators revealed part of the early Nineteenth Century Spanish fort and extensive deposits of shells.”

There could still be evidence of the native Timucuans who thrived here up until about 500 years ago. These tall, athletic Native Americans inhabited this region, and this island, as far back as 2,000 B.C. At one time, there were more than 200,000 Timucans in what is now Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia. In fact, there is evidence that native humans have resided here for almost 13,000 years!

Curious for some greater insight into the Timucuans, I visit the Amelia Island Museum of History on South Third Street, where I find a fine display. A young man hands me Jayne C. Nasrallah’s business card and tells me she is the local expert on the Timucuans.

Two days later, she invites me to drop by their research library. Modest and eager to further my amateur research (“I’m not an expert but I’m glad to help,” she tells me), she directs me to a pile of papers and several hardbound books on the Timucuans that she has generously pulled from the shelves. That same day, the editor of the News-Leader lends me archeological drawings from 1952 that show where ancient mounds have been discovered here.

I am psyched! Curiosity is leading me into another adventure. This one requires some homework.

I realize my curiosity is paying off. First, I find that there is a great wealth of information at our museum for those curious to know about the deep history of Amelia Island. Like everywhere here, friendly folks are eager to help.

Second, as I walk down Centre Street and marvel at architecture from the 19th century, I visualize, in place of the bricks and ornate buildings, much smaller round mud straw huts inhabited by Timucuans.

One map indicates that a major mound was located around the high ground where today’s School Board buildings are located on the north side of Atlantic Avenue.

The maps are interesting but the description of what they found is compelling.

Excavation by a Mr. Moore in 1922 revealed one burial mound with “seventy-four skeletons [including] deposits of hematite, pottery fragments ... several picks, three gouges, a drinking cup, two pins and some beads, all of shell, a bone awl, a large canine tooth,” and the skeleton of a dog.

That same expedition located a “fairly large shell heap, originally four or five feet high ... located on the east side of the Clark Creek swamp,” just north of Old Town.

These ancient mounds varied somewhat in their contents. Some were burial mounds, some were “domestic” mounds or trash middens usually set aside from the village, similar to today’s garbage dumps. All can give us insight into how these folks lived by revealing what they wore, what they ate, and their weaponry. 

I am amazed at the number and size of sites discovered on Amelia Island that date back 1,000 years or more. One of the largest sites was discovered just inland from American Beach, on high ground.

On a recent warm Tuesday, I head for the museum once more. Nasrallah had left a pile of reference materials for me, including clippings from the Florida Times-Union newspaper. I spend more than two hours pouring through the material, learning more about how these now-extinct people lived.

Professor Jerald T. Milanich of the University of Florida sums up their place in history: “The First Coast is literally that, the place where old and new worlds clashed, setting the stage for the European conquest of the eastern United States.”

As I leave the museum, Nasrallah reminds me to leave in place anything I might find in a mound: “If it is removed from the site where it was found, it becomes worthless.” She smiles, but I get the message. “Leave it where you find it, take a picture and note the location, then call the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research (850-245-6444).”

Even if I find no middens or burial sites, I will continue to be curious. My curiosity has already led me to good people who helped further my research. I now also know much more about the deep history of my adopted home.

As well, I will continue to divert from the trail and explore well off the beaten path.
There is adventure here and, in fact, wherever you go.