Native Americans during the Florida Archaic Period used the burial ground today known as the Manasota Key Offshore Archeological Site as early as 8000 years ago, Ryan Duggins told members of the Time Sifters Archeological Society at Selby Public Library in the Geldbart Auditorium.
The site was thought to date back about 7,000 years. Before the rise of the Gulf of Mexico, it was a small freshwater burial pond in the north port close to the Little Salt Springs.
Duggins said —”We know that 8,000 years ago there was a small freshwater pond,” supervisor of underwater archaeology, to the Florida State Department Bureau of Archaeological Research. “And we know Florida’s indigenous people used that pond as a mortuary pond.”
The prehistoric burial site, discovered in 21 feet of water off of Manasota Key in June 2016, is the first example in North or South America of human remains being identified offshore. That in itself is a game-changer for the 50-year-old field of underwater archaeology, which Duggins said was primarily concentrated on finding shipwrecks as recently as 10 or 15 years ago.
“This demonstrates that we can have preservation of worked wood, of cordage of burials that have survived thousands of years of storms — It’s completely unprecedented.” Duggins talked to more than 60 Time Sifters members about both original work on the site, as well as current findings.
“We’ve displaced less than a cubic meter of the site, we’ve learned enough on how we can successfully manage the site,” Duggins said, then added that more than 40 visiting scientists from more than 20 organizations have pitched in to help document the site.
John McCarthy, executive director of Historic Spanish Point and a frequent lecturer on the Manasota Key Offshore site, noted that underwater burials dating back to 10,000 years before current human occupation has been documented in Warm Mineral Springs and back to 12,000 years in Little Salt Springs. At Historic Spanish Point, one of the oldest shell midden burial sites in the state, burials date back to 5,000 years before current human occupation.
“So now, this Manasota Key Offshore nestles in at 7 to 8,000 years, right between a shell midden site which is on the current coast and these ancient sites,” added McCarthy, who is also part of a team assembled by the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, at the request of the state, to assist in both protecting and learning from the site. “Sarasota County has just an amazing constellation of sites but the continuum over time is tremendous.”
At the request of both the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes, no images or video of human remains are displayed publicly. Also, no DNA testing has been performed to determine how the current Native Americans may be related to the prehistoric inhabitants. Members of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office, which is responsible for protecting and preserving Native American sites have indicated that at this point in time, they are not supportive of testing.
“They’ve made it clear they’re not interested in destructive analysis like that,” Duggins said. “What we can say, though, is that they were here 8,000 years ago.”
At the time the shallow peat-bottomed pond was used as a mortuary pond, the Gulf of Mexico was 30 feet lower, so the site was about nine feet above sea level. After the burial site was found in 2016 by Joshua Frank, an amateur diver looking for shark teeth, archaeologists visited the site and confirmed the existence of an organic peat bed, which typically occurs in freshwater, as well as burial sites and worked wooden stakes. Further assessments in 2017 mapped the extent of the peat bed, which was about two meters deep, and found human remains. An infilled river channel and three infilled springs were also discovered.
“This is a significant find, the fact that we have this paleo pond … that has somehow survived sea level rise,” Duggins said. Even more significant, he added, is the existence of the burial site and artifacts. Because trowels, a traditional tool of the trade, were too rough, archaeologists work with kitchen utensils such as spatulas, pastry brushes and icing spreaders to explore the site. Wooden stakes, some of which looked like they could have just been made, exhibited tool marks and evidence that they were hardened in fire.
Until recently, the archeologists dated early activity at 7,207 to 7,217 years ago. The underwater burial ritual, Duggins said, involved wrapping the deceased in fabric, submerging them at the bottom of a small freshwater pond and placing a series of sharpened branches around them at an angle to hold them in place. Archaeologists have noted that the clustering of those stakes are more dense at Manasota Key Offshore than at Windover Pond in Brevard County — one of the most heavily documented mortuary ponds in the state. The scientists hypothesize that the stakes were needed to secure the dead in place, perhaps because of currents.
They have mapped about 2,500 square meters of sea floor and believe human remains are scattered in an area about the size of half a football field. They also have noted a large erosional peat ledge that may mark the end of the burial site. In addition to human remains, corded fabric and wood, archaeologists believe they may have found some hair — though they have yet to determine whether it is human or animal hair.
“It’s been sent out for analysis by specialists, and we’re waiting to hear back,” Duggins said. “If it’s not hair, what is it?”
They also have been studying a large plank with wavy carvings. Below that plank, they found three wooden pieces that resemble tongue depressors. “What is it? Clueless,” Duggins said. Archaeologists have yet to find the end of the wooden plank, which extends north and east.
Charred wood from the northern unit of the site have tested 95.4 percent certain as dating between 8,200 and 8,949 years ago, Duggins said. He also noted that archaeologists have documented about 1,000 years of human use of the paleo pond, meaning the generation after generation knew that was the place to bury the deceased.
Duggins did have some bad news to deliver — the site is eroding at its southwest ledge. “And it’s going away quickly,” he added.
After taking accurate measurements in 2017 and 2018, the archaeologists have determined that they lost a meter from the site in a year. “That’s a meter running 70 to 90 meters long,” along the ledge, Duggins said. In addition to that erosion, archeologists are concerned about other threats, ranging from unintentional damage by divers seeking sharks’ teeth to looters. Six separate instances of looting have been documented since the site was discovered. Though the state is secretive about the exact site of Manasota Key Offshore, it had been marked by buoys, to inform divers seeking sharks’ teeth to dig elsewhere. Those buoys were displaced by a storm, Duggins said, but new ones should be in place soon.
Meanwhile, the site is monitored by frequent patrols and from the shore by high resolution cameras, to deter or document any unauthorized visitors. The state also conducts education campaigns that include talks like Duggins’ appearance at the Time Sifters meeting.