Were huge circular piles of shell dumped along the southeast U.S. coast 3–5,000 years ago built as freshwater reservoirs for local tribes? That’s what at least one archaeologist, William Marquardt of the Florida Museum of Natural History, and a hydrologist Douglas Middaugh think. They believe that during periodic droughts some 4,000 years ago, local tribes were forced to build big holding tanks to capture and maintain an adequate supply of drinking water. Marquardt suggests in a 2010 article in American Antiquity that these “rings” built from oyster shell were used to capture rain and ground water.
Other archaeologists, including Dr. Mike Russo of the Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC) are not so sure. The standard view holds that people lived along the inside edge of the rings and threw the shell from their many meals behind them, which over decades—and sometimes centuries—formed the enormous ring structures that still stand today. Because the ring plazas hold evidence of houses, hearths, burials, and food storage, it seemed unlikely to us that rings were used to hold water. But Dr. Russo also suspected the freshwater reservoir idea was way off simply because loose piles of shell and the sand upon which shell rings were built cannot hold water. Put simply, shell and sand structures leak.
To test this idea, Dr. Russo and his colleagues at SEAC built a large ring of shell to see if it could hold water. The experiment and its results can be seen here:
Shell rings were huge structures even by today’s standards (some are larger than two football fields across and up to 20 feet high). At the time they were built they the largest structures in North America that would not be matched in size for another 3,000 years when the large stone temples in Central America began to appear. Unlike stone pyramids, shell rings were not built as a single event, public works construction projects. Rather they were built gradually over time.
But like all prehistoric living places, rings were also places of celebration, ritual and feasting. Much of the shell in the rings resulted from feasting at these celebrations held in the central plaza, which functioned much like a football field. To have a clear field for their rituals, plazas were kept scrupulously clean from the shell refuse that made the ring. Some of the rituals undoubtedly involved games, some marriages or other alliances, and we even have direct evidence of human burials in some plazas. But for the most part, we still don’t have evidence of what specific celebrations and rituals were performed at the rings.
For a more detailed account of the results, Dr. Russo’s and colleagues’ formal essay on the shell ring experiment can be found here:
Recent Hurricane Hermine leveled trees of enormous and damaging sizes at the Byrd Hammock archeological site, 8Wa30 on the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge 20 miles south of Tallahassee on the Florida Gulf coast. The site consists of two burial mounds and the remains of two villages and ceremonial plazas dating circa AD 400 and 900. The upturned trees hit the north Weeden Island village hardest causing the greatest damage, with a 120 foot swamp chestnut oak (Quercus michauxii) near the center of the village being felled across the 180 foot wide plaza and five other oaks on the rings themselves also being blown over.
The damage to the archeological site came in two forms. The most destructive came from the roots being pulled out of the ground. Typically a tree’s roots extend out at least as far as the canopy breadth of the individual tree. For the downed swamp chestnut oak in the center of the north village plaza, a root ball 20 feet across was pulled out of the ground right next to an archeological excavation dug last year by the SEAC/FSU field school. That excavation had revealed a four post structure in the middle of the plaza. Four other large tree falls in the north and south ring middens deposits were less harmful in that they broke near the base of their trunks and no root ball was upheaved.
Secondary damage from all the large tree falls occurred when the side branches of these
large trees were pushed into the plaza and midden soils with significant force. And finally tertiary, ongoing damage is occurring as gopher tortoises, armadillos and other assorted creatures have started to burrow under the fallen trunks and branches in search of shelter.
Perhaps the biggest potential damage to the site is yet to come when attempts will be made to cut the trees up and remove them from the site. The shallow deposits of the village middens and plazas are sensitive to the treads and tracks of heavy machinery. Most trees will thus have to be cut and removed by chainsaw, hands, and less invasive hauling machinery like wheelbarrows. The Refuge and SEAC will be working together to protect the site from possible further damage from tree removal.
Casting a vote in our country’s free and democratic elections is a hard-won American right and privilege. It may be our most important civic duty. On August 6, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that in part made it illegal to “intimidate, threaten, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten or coerce any person for voting or attempting to vote.” Though it was meant to enforce the 15th amendment which had been ratified nearly 100 years earlier, the act was met with resistance from some members of the public.
Voting rights activists, both black and white, suffered attacks by resistant private citizens and uniformed police officers. In parts of the South, white landowners evicted African American tenant farmers and sharecroppers who voted, registered to vote, or otherwise engaged in voting rights activities like marching, attending mass meetings, and canvasing.
Such was the case in Lowndes County, Alabama, where John Hulett, president of the Lowndes County Christian Movement for Human Rights (LCCMHR) estimated, by New Year’s Eve 1966 as many as 50 families had been ordered to leave their homes.
Federal court rulings cited a lack of evidence that sharecroppers were intimidated or that they had been evicted specifically for voting activities. The increasing availability of mechanical farming equipment, for example, was sometimes suggested as justification for evictions.
In some cases individuals brought their own furniture, clothing, and other portable belongings with them. Church collections and donations of food, money, and materials were the primary sustenance for the camp. A Detroit branch of the LCCMHR was particularly effective in soliciting nonperishable food and money for the camp in February and March 1966.
Though a functional and symbolic expression of black suffrage and solidarity, the accommodations were sparse. There was no running water or plumbing. Very few of the tents had wood floors. Personal accounts report that some cooking was done in the center of the camp over open flames; others cooked on stoves within their tents. “Each tent had two beds, a fire of some sort, and a gun.” Residents were regularly harassed by gun fire and armed themselves for protection. SNCC, LCCMHR, and LCFO helped to find residents new jobs and permanent housing.
Freedom City in Lowndes County was maintained until December 1967. Other tent cities were established in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee to house evicted tenants, and others were set up in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta to protest evictions and as a show of solidarity with tenants.
Are you interested in learning about American life in the 1960s through archeology?
An engaging interpretive exhibit about Freedom City can be experienced at the NPS Lowndes County Interpretive Center. But, no archeological investigations have taken place at the Freedom City site. There may be archeological deposits that can be identified through geophysical survey with ground penetrating radar, magnetomentry, or a soil resistivity meter.
Does archeology have anything meaningful to teach us about our recent history? What do you think? Leave a comment below!
The Wallis House was built by Josiah Wallis about 1853 and abandoned upon the approach of General Tecumseh Sherman’s armies. It had been used as a Confederate hospital. During the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain served as General Sherman headquarters during the Battle of Kolb’s Farm and as Union ’s headquarters during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain.
“Happy Anniversary” and “Happy Birthday” are still ringing in our ears. One after another, patrons of the 5th Annual Tallahassee Science Festival congratulated us on the National Park Service’s centennial (and SEAC’s semi-centennial) year!
Tim Roberts andClete Rooney represented theSoutheast Archeological Centerat the Festival at Lake Ella on Saturday September 10th. Thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth! SEAC’s was one of more than 125 S.T.E.A.M. (Science Technology Engineering Arts and Math) exhibits.
An estimated 5,500 to 6,000 people turned up for the event. From 10 a.m. until 2 p.m., it was nonstop public outreach! No time for breaks. No time for lunch. Not even time to sneak away and check out some of the other exhibits but we had a nice corner spot next to the Gulf Specimen Marine Lab.
Besides some great schwag like stickers, tattoos, bookmarks, and pencils, our booth featured a prehistoric pottery analysis activity. The younger visitors tried their hand at refitting a couple of replica effigy vessels and weighing sherds on a triple beam balance. With so many people passing through and so many different exhibits to experience, the pottery analysis workbook turned out to be a bit time-intensive, but a few visitors completed the entire activity. Kids and their parents got a kick out of being able to handle sherds from pots made by Native Americans hundreds or thousands of years ago. Later in the day, students from Florida State and Florida A&M University stopped by to share their support for the National Park Service and inquire about volunteer opportunities, future employment, and what classes they should take in order to become professional archeologists.
Some of Tallahassee’s newest female scientists may have found their calling last Friday. For the fourth year in a row, National Park Service archeologists from theSoutheast Archeological Center were honored to spend a day with the SciGirls summer camp a two-week program for girls entering 6-9th grade designed to inspire middle and high school girls to pursue careers in science.
A major theme for this year’s archeology day at SciGirls Summer Camp was unauthorized excavation of archeological sites – looting.
The girls started the day off with a lecture about archeology and how archeological research is conducted. Then they headed outside to document a mock archeological site hypothetically damaged by looters. They mapped and collected artifacts, and learned to take measurements using the metric system.
The girls spent the next few hours in the lab analyzing faux artifacts and casts of human skeletal remains. Part of the focus was to help them develop and understanding of how removing artifacts from their context in the earth makes it difficult and sometimes impossible to answer certain questions about the past.
The human remains had been recovered from the back of the looters’ truck as part of the hypothetical looting situation that framed the lab. The SciGirls learned how to calculate the Minimum Number of Individuals (MNI) in a skeletal assemblage and used a complete, articulated skeleton as a comparative tool for identifying different bones.
During the lab exercises, the girls learned how archeologists use ceramic typologies to determine date ranges for sites, how the timing of tooth eruptions can be used to determine the age of subadult skeletal remains, and how features of adult skeletons can be used to determine whether the remains belong to a male or female. The SciGirls also took a look at several reproduction and real artifacts and learned what kinds of research can be done on these items and what methods are available to archeologists. Lastly, the girls wrote a report documenting the site and the artifacts and considered how illegally removing artifacts from a site impairs our ability to learn about the past.
Unauthorized excavation and looting are serious problems in the practice of archeology. While federal and state governments have been intensifying their enforcement of laws protecting archeological sites and punishing perpetrators, one of the best ways to combat these kinds of violations is through education of the up-and-coming generation. The SciGirls camp was an excellent opportunity to reach out to the future leaders of tomorrow to instill a deeper respect for our cultural heritage and the recognition of the irreversible damage caused by looting.
This year the SciGirls worked really well as a team. We were especially impressed with their questions about archeological and osteological methods! We also lucked out and had no rain. The girls got a little dirty, but stayed dry. We’re already looking forward to next year’s Archeology Day at SciGirls summer camp!
SEAC archeologists were recently at Goodhope Farm excavating two horse skeletons with the help of Florida State University anthropology professor Dr. Geoffrey Thomas and his students. Meanwhile, Worthington was tending to his collection of five gallon buckets containing the putrefying remains of various critters whose skeletons will be added to SEAC’s zooarcheological comparative collection. When the buckets were open, one could smell them downwind everywhere on the property!
Maceration is the rather grizzly process of removing all of the soft tissue from an animal skeleton by submerging it in water
Next, as much of the flesh as possible is cut away from the carcass and the organs are removed. It is good practice to soak birds before defleshing to prevent a feathery mess. The skin and viscera are weighed, followed by the cleaned skeleton. The mathematical difference between these weights is an estimate of the amount of the meat provided by the animal.
Summer is the best time for macerating because the high temperatures promote the growth of bacteria that break down soft tissue. The buckets are kept outside for obvious reasons, and to keep the smell down, some of the water in the bucket can be drained and fresh water added after a few days. Ideally, the temperature remains relatively constant.
The carcass remains in the bucket of water until the great majority of the tissue has detached from the bones; this took about three weeks for the bluefish, kingfish, grouper, surgeon fish, barracuda, cod, loon, wood duck, coney, chicken turtle, channel catfish, osprey, and beaver in Worthington’s buckets.
The contents of the buckets are poured through a screen 1/16 inch or finer, or a paint strainer mesh bag. The skeleton is transferred to a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water to disinfect it, remove the smell, and dissolve any small bits of flesh that may still cling to the bones. It remains in this solution for no more than 24 hours because the hydrogen peroxide can begin to damage the bones themselves.
In some instances, the macerated skeleton may also need to be de-greased by submerging it in acetone for anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Small holes drilled into the larger bones of larger mammals can facilitate leaching the marrow.
When the defleshing and degreasing is complete, each skeleton is assigned a unique catalog number which is entered into a database. Each bone is labelled with the catalog number. The box containing the skeleton is also labelled with the catalog number as well as the genus, species, and common name of the animal. The specimens in SEAC’s collection are organized by taxonomic order.
Maceration is not the only method of preparing faunal specimens for the comparative collection. Fire ants have been used to deflesh skeletons. But, they bite the hand that feeds them, so to speak, and they have a tendency to displace small skeletal elements. Colonies of beetles of the family Dermestidae are considered to be one of the most effective agents for cleaning smaller animals.
However, these critters are high maintenance and can pose a danger to curated organic artifacts. According to Worthington, some dermestid beetle colonies can even develop a preference for particular animals and grow picky about what they eat.
Besides the specimens macerated in the buckets, two deer and a sheep buried at Goodhope Farm were excavated. The deer had been placed in Tupperware containers. One container was filled with water. The other container had been filled but was disturbed by some living animal. It was resealed but never refilled with water. Unexpectedly, a considerable amount of soft tissue remained with the submerged skeleton along with a strong odor of decay while the dry skeleton was relatively clean and odorless.
Like the specimens in the maceration buckets, the contents of both containers were rinsed on 1/16 inch screens. The bones were placed in buckets to be soaked in hydrogen peroxide solution.
Even when most of the flesh had decayed, a brittle, white material resembling limestone was found with the skeletons. This substance was adipocere formed by the decay of fat.
Serenaded by Eric the sheepdog, the archeologists used shovels and trowels to excavate the grave of a sheep, donated by Meaghan Thacker, which was marked with wire. Its carcass was buried with a sheet had been used to drag it to its grave. When the sheet was spotted during excavation, the archeologists began screen the soil matrix through 1/4 inch hardware cloth. The archeologists ended up with more than they bargained for. The sheep was apparently pregnant when it died.
The skeleton of an unborn lamb was found with the sheep.
All of these skeletons will be joining the SEAC zooarcheological comparative collection along with the horse skeletons excavated at Goodhope Farm.
Make no bones about it, comparative collections are one of the most important tools in zooarcheology. These assemblages are made up of the shells and complete skeletons of animals about which much is known; for example, when, where, and how the animals lived and died. By comparing these modern specimens with archeological specimens, zooarcheologists can go beyond simply identifying what species are present in an archeological faunal assemblage to answering questions about whether a particular specimen is from a male or female, what kind of environment the animal lived in, how old it was when it died, and much more.
About six years ago, after old age and illness had taken their toll, two of Suzi Goodhope’s horses, Pascal and Patriot were euthanized and buried in separate graves on either side of a pasture fence. Goodhope’s “cadaver dogs” specialize in locating historic human remains and part of their training and conditioning involves distinguishing between the scents of dead human beings and non-human animals. The buried horses, as well as burials of two deer and a sheep were used as part of the dogs’ training. Goodhope offered to donate the skeletons to SEAC for our zooarcheological comparative collection provided that she didn’t have to excavate them herself, of course.
Did you know that Suzi and her HRD dog Shiraz have worked closely with SEAC on several occasions including the recent project at the Thomasville Civil War Prison Camp?
Excavating articulated skeletons is a rare opportunity even for professional archeologists. Dr. Geoff Thomas saw Goodhope’s offer as an occasion for students, with shovels, trowels, brooms, and brushes, to excavate the horse skeletons using methods employed by archeologists and forensic anthropologists.
Between May 9 and June 17, 2016, Thomas and FSU anthropology professor Dr. Tanya Peres had led 16 students in a field school at Mound Field (8WA8), a 1400 year-old prehistoric archeological site in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. SEAC provided technical support, logistics, and volunteer recruitment.
Despite identifying and excavating numerous prehistoric features at Mound Field, no human remains were encountered. Goodhope even brought Shiraz, a Belgian Malinois and her most experienced dog, to the site but she was unable to locate any evidence of human remains.
Did you known that Mound Field is the second site in the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge to host an FSU field school? Learn about the other site – Byrd Hammock – here!
FSU undergraduate anthropology students Emilee McGann, Alexa Pannavaria, Jessica Knight, Bridgett Borders, Ashley Brady, and Mason Pope had participated in the Mound Field field school. They volunteered to help excavate Goodhope’s horses for some hands-on experience with faunal remains.
The work began on June 20th when SEAC archeologists met Goodhope at her property near Havana, Florida. She pointed out the horse graves, visible on the surface as shallow depressions, and a ground penetrating radar, or GPR, was used to pinpoint their locations. A backhoe was hired to remove the fill from each grave down to a level just above the horses’ remains.
Patriot’s remains were encountered at the water table making for a very mucky excavation and preventing the students’ ability to excavate his complete articulated skeleton in situ.
Most of the students’ time on site was spent removing fill above Pascal’s grave with shovels. When the outline of the grave became clear, they laid in a 2m x 2m unit and exposed the skeleton with trowels excavating in arbitrary 10 cm levels.
Pascal’s remains were encountered just above the water table allowing the students to expose most of the skeleton. The vagaries of preservation often get the better of best laid plans. Along with the bones, quite a bit of hide, hair, and adipose were still present along with the lingering smell of putrification. The students remarked that the smell, and the sounds of troweling the saturated soil were the most off-putting parts of the experience.
After the majority of the skeleton was exposed, students practiced drawing a plan map of the feature. Each element was removed and arranged anatomically to be sure that the entire skeleton had been recovered. The bones were placed in black plastic garbage bags and brought back to the lab.
On the loading bay at SEAC, archeologists placed the bones in a 3 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide overnight to disinfect the specimens and remove any remaining tissue. Then each bone was scrubbed and rinsed in fresh water and left out to dry. The two skeletons were assigned distinct catalog numbers. Each bone will be labelled with the catalog number. Each skeleton will be placed in a container labelled with the catalog number, and the scientific binomial and common name.
Goodhope has generously allowed SEAC zooarcheologist Brian Worthington to move his maceration operation to her property. Stay tuned for more on this rather grizzly method of preparing animal skeletons for zooarcheological comparative collections….
Check out this excellent video on the FSU field school at Mound Field!
The Southeast Archeological Center manages more than 9 million artifacts in its collections. The largest object is a nine-pounder cast iron cannon recovered from the HMS Fowey shipwreck site at Biscayne National Park in 1983.
The Fowey isa British Navy frigate that sank in park waters in 1748. Two nine-pounder cannons were recovered, one during an underwater archeological project conducted by SEAC and the other by park staff shortly afterward. The two guns initially underwent conservation treatment at the Florida State Conservation Research Laboratory in Tallahassee.
After several years of outdoor display at Biscayne National Park, the two guns were retreated at the Texas A&M Conservation Laboratory and park staff then loaned one of the guns to SEAC for management and preservation in the Center’s storage facility in 2005. The other cannon is currently on exhibit at the Biscayne National ParkVisitor Center.
“Bite the bullet.” If you’ve never heard this phrase then you’ve probably lived a charmed life. The idiom generally refers to enduring something difficult, unpleasant, or painful, and unavoidable. Its etymology usually involves a military inevitability or unpleasantry.
For example, it is often suggested that patients undergoing surgery without anesthesia (i.e. wounded soldiers in the field) were given a bullet to clench between their teeth as a way to cope with extreme pain. Other sources associate the expression with the mid-nineteenth century British phrase “refused to bite the cartridge” referring to native Indian soldiers who mutinied during Indian Rebellion of 1857. In this case, “biting the cartridge” refers to biting open a paper cartridge containing a lead ball and gun powder to load a rifle. The British army in the mid-nineteenth century greased their cartridges with pork or beef fat to keep them dry. Consuming pork is forbidden in Islam and consuming beef forbidden in Hindusim. It has been suggested that these matters of religious freedom directly influenced the Mulsim and Hindu soldiers’ refusal to bite the cartridge, and the punishment they received for their disobedience led to the military mutiny that precipitated the Indian Rebellion of 1857.
Our Artifact of the Week wasn’t found in India but the West Indies.
It is a lead ball that may have been chewed by human teeth
Unfortunately, some of the provenience data has been lost and the sampling procedure is unknown (Hanson 1969). A brass side plate for a musket was recovered from the same trench and the caliber of the ball is in the general vicinity of a musket ball. Another lead ball was found with a hole bored through it possibly to be used as fishing weight.
Were lead balls used as some sort of toxic, makeshift confection? Not likely. Lead poisoning may be one of the oldest known hazards of its kind. The ancient Romans knew that lead was toxic. Yet they used lead acetate or so-called sugar of lead as a food sweetener. However, a soldier in the 1777 Battle of Walloomsac, New York wrote that he chewed a bullet to promote salivation (Sivilich 2016:109).
Of course, maybe the ball wasn’t chewed by a human being at all. Many lead balls chewed by rodents, pigs, and even deer have been found on battlefields.In some cases, the shape of the markings on the ball are a clue to the kind of animal that did the chewing (Sivilich 2016:102). For example, deer teeth can leave a horseshoe shaped pattern of impressions. Rodents often leave long parallel grooves from their incisors. Wild and domestic swine may leave markings similar to those made by human teeth but the size and depth of the impressions are usually greater. In fact, swine can flatten lead balls with their powerful jaw muscles, sometimes swallowing and partly digest them.
Battlefield archaeologist Daniel M. Sivilichconducted several experiments in which he chewed musket balls cast from lead alloy and 99.9 percent pure lead using different teeth. While this kind of procedure is not recommended given the dangers of lead poisoning, his results suggest that some lead balls were chewed by people.
Interested in learning more about historic ammunition?
Though hardly more than speculation, it is possible that the military artifacts from the trenches at Cinnamon Bay found their way into the archeological record duringthe 1733 African revolt. Briefly, the 1730s were particularly volatile in the social and environmental history of St. John Island.
Marronage, the self-emancipation of enslaved Africans by running away, was especially high. Attempting to suppress marronage, the Danish government instituted extremely brutal methods for punishing disobedience among enslaved Africans and maroons. In 1733, drought, two hurricanes, and insect plagues decimated island crops and fresh water supplies dwindled. Combined, these developments strained inherently taut relations between Dutch planters and enslaved Africans.
Among the St. John maroons were African royalty, noblemen and women, and wealthy merchants who had been captured as prisoners of war and sold to Danish slavers in the 1730s. The revolt is believed to have been orchestrated by several these enslaved aristocrasts – Bolombo, an Adambe king, Aquashi, an Aquambo prince, and Kanta, an Amina nobleman. After a six month standoff, the rebellion was defeated by French and Danish soldiers, slaves from other islands, and a militia of free creoles. The abolition of slavery in the Dutch West Indies and the emancipation of enslaved Africans would not happen until 1848.
This is the second post on uniquely used military artifacts from Virgin Islands National Park.
2016 Musket Ball and Small Shot Identification: A Guide. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.
Hanson, Lee H., Jr.
1969 A Study of the Artifacts Recovered from Two Construction Trenches Through the Cinnamon Bay Site, St.John Island, Virgin Islands National Park. Manuscript on file at the Southeast Archeological Center, Tallahassee, Florida.