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A paramedic-turned-archaeologist sees evidence in a mortuary pond for an ancient culture's medical ingenuity

Windover Pond

Windover Pond
(Courtesy Rachel Wentz)

Windover pond is a secluded body of water near the eastern coast of central Florida, minutes from Kennedy Space Center, in the city of Titusville. In winter, barren limbs draped in Spanish moss graze the pale-green mat of algae that covers its surface. The muddy shores gradually give way to shallow waters. Shadows roll over the pond's surface. The air is cold, and the surrounding woods provide a buffer between the pond and the Windover Farms housing development and muffle the sound of neighborhood traffic, reducing it to a soft hum. It is the burial place of, as far as we know, 168 individuals.

The pond quietly held its ancient contents for thousands of years, until 1982, when a backhoe operator working on the construction of the Windover Farms subdivision discovered the burial site. For the last 10 years, this pond has been at the center of my work.

From 1984 to 1987, physical anthropologists led excavations of Windover Pond—now a protected archaeological site—and recovered the 168 bodies. Similar mortuary ponds have been discovered in Florida, all of them dating to the area's Archaic period (approximately 3,000 to 9,000 years ago). Radiocarbon dating of bone, wood, and a bottle gourd show that Windover Pond was in use before 5000 B.C. The burials found there comprise the largest skeletal population of this age in North America.

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Rachel K. Wentz is a regional director for the Florida Public Archaeology Network.