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The Devil in the Details Volume 58 Number 3, May/June 2005
by Jerald T. Milanich

What are Brazilian war clubs and Pacific seashells doing in 400-year-old engravings of Florida Indians?

[image] Portrait of the Flemish engraver de Bry, whose inaccurate depictions of Florida Indians have misled archaeologists. [LARGER IMAGE]

In 1590, the Flemish engraver Theodor de Bry and his family began publishing illustrated books on the Americas. All 14 books in the series contain engravings of scenes and people from the New World paired with information from Europeans who had voyaged across the Atlantic. The second de Bry volume, published in 1591, focused on the 1564-1565 French settlement of Fort Caroline east of modern Jacksonville. Prominent in the 42 engravings are Timucua-speaking Indians who lived in northern Florida and southern Georgia. The engravings, said to be based on the watercolor paintings of Jacques le Moyne de Morgues, who had accompanied the French expedition to Florida, were published by de Bry along with a narrative and a map, both attributed to le Moyne.

In 1946, Stefan Lorant published The New World, in which he translated the le Moyne text into English and reproduced the engravings and map. For archaeologists, The New World provided an easily accessible portal to the past. The de Bry engravings, for instance, show Timucua Indian burial ceremonies, chiefs being carried in litters, and the use of deerskin disguises for hunting. There also are Indian houses and palisaded villages, pottery vessels, foods, clothing, ornaments, and weapons, as well as tools and tattoos. Lorant had opened the doors to a veritable museum of sixteenth-century Indian artifacts and customs. One engraving shows Indians participating in a Black Drink ceremony using a nautilus shell cup--an obvious error since it is native to the Pacific. But it was only a small mistake, and I was more than willing to overlook it. When you are holding a Rosetta Stone, you don't quibble about details

Little in this de Bry engraving is accurate: not the palisade, houses, nor nautilus shell cup. Southeastern Indian shell cups were made using whelks. [image]
(Pete Bostrom) [LARGER IMAGE]

Le Moyne escaped the 1565 Spanish conquest of Fort Caroline and returned to France, later moving to London. After le Moyne's death in 1588, his widow sold the paintings and narrative to de Bry, who used them as the basis for the 1591 book. At least that's what de Bry says. But it is puzzling why none of le Moyne's paintings of Florida exist, especially since today there are perhaps 200 paintings and drawings by him in museums and private collections, including works done before he went to Fort Caroline and others done after he returned. All of these illustrations depict plants and insects and other animals. None are of Florida scenes, nor, as far as I can tell, of any plants or animals native to the Southeast. If he had le Moyne's paintings on hand, why did de Bry erroneously engrave a Pacific nautilus and not a Florida whelk shell? That question first surfaced in 1972 and 1973 while I was studying the de Bry engravings on a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. William Sturtevant, a specialist in North American Indians there, pointed out that error, along with several other puzzling things in more of the 1591 images. For instance, many of the feather headdresses worn by the Timucua Indians looked like those worn by the Tupinamba from Brazil. The wooden clubs in the engravings were also straight out of the Amazon.

After reexamining all the evidence, I now question whether Jacques le Moyne actually did any paintings of Florida Indians. Not knowing what a Timucua Indian feather headdress or war club looked like, de Bry simply borrowed images from other sources, including Staden's illustrated account of his adventures among the Brazilian Indians and, I believe, John White's paintings, as well. I am afraid there is no Rosetta Stone, no miraculous portal to the past for Southeastern archaeologists. Until someone finds an actual, documented le Moyne drawing or painting of Florida Indians, I am going to assume we have been duped. If there is one thing I have learned from this, it is that other figurative land mines may be planted out there, primed to blow up in the faces of archaeologists. Where and what they are remains to be determined. If I were searching for them, I would begin with a hard look at other early European images of American Indians, starting with the de Bry family's 13 other volumes. And don't forget to look closely at the details.

Jerald T. Milanich is a contributing editor to ARCHAEOLOGY and an archaeologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

© 2005 by the Archaeological Institute of America