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(Courtesy INRAP, Copyright Denis Gliksman/INRAP, Wikimedia Commons)

If you’re driving down U.S. Route 19 along the west coast of Florida, archaeologist Jerald T. Milanich of the Florida Museum of Natural History says you should pull over at Crystal River Archaeological State Park and take in the area’s seldom-visited mounds.

The site The park’s centerpiece is a complex of eight earthen mounds arranged around a central plaza. Dating to A.D. 50 to 500, the mounds were constructed by the Deptford and Weeden Island cultures, people who relied on wild food sources and participated in long-distance trading with the better-known Hopewell cultures of the Midwest. Though only about one-third of the huge central temple mound still remains (the rest was used as fill for a mobile home park), the view of Crystal River from the top is one of Milanich’s favorites.

Excavations In the early 20th century, Philadelphia-based archaeologist Clarence B. Moore dug here and found that the site was a major religious center. He excavated an extraordinary array of objects, including a copper panpipe and exotic shell ornaments, one of which was in the shape of a flower with petals. A cut panther jaw and the modified teeth of bears and other carnivores thought to be parts of masks were also discovered. Some of the artifacts are on display at the site’s interpretive center.

Don’t believe the internet An upright slab of limestone incised with a crude human-like figure was found at the site in 1964. This “stele,” together with the temple mounds, plaza, and the site’s exotic artifacts, have led a host of New Age web surfers to posit direct ties between Crystal River and the lowland Maya region or the Veracruz coast. Milanich and others reject that contention, saying there is no credible evidence for pre-Columbian contact between Florida and Mesoamerica. The eight-foot petroglyph is still in place at the site. For more information, go to www.crystalriverstateparks.org

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