An amateur fossil hunter diving off the Florida Keys discovered an amazingly well-preserved ancient Native American burial site.
The site could provide transformative information about how these early Floridians lived and how they reacted to the rise in sea level which followed the last ice age.
The site was discovered in 21 feet of water off Manasota Key in June 2016.
The Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research (BAR) used noninvasive techniques like including magnetometry, sub-bottom profiling, and side-scan sonar, to map and evaluate the site.
The investigation revealed the remains of multiple individuals.
The burial ground appears to have been at the bottom of a freshwater pond. A layer of peat helped preserve the remains and some of the wooden stakes used as grave markers.
Carbon dating of some wooden stakes left in the site suggests the earliest bodies were interred in 7,200 years ago, during the so-called Archaic period. At that time the Gulf of Mexico was about 30 feet lower than it is today.
“I was always kind of told that a site like this wouldn’t exist in the Gulf of Mexico, that it wouldn’t be able to survive,” said Dr. Ryan Duggins, underwater archaeology supervisor at BAR, told News-Press. “Just out of sheer luck, a citizen brought this information to our attention and it’s been a great experience.”
Protected and Preserved
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner posted on his official website, “Out of respect for the individuals buried there and their living descendants, divers and other interested individuals are prohibited from disturbing the site.”
The area will be patrolled by law enforcement to prevent relic-hunters and souvenir-seekers from disturbing the area.
The site has already been protected from development, erosion, and storm damage, the forces which often tend to destroy archeological sites in Florida. Because this site was submerged for thousands of years, it has been protected from the elements. At the same time peat acts as a natural preservative for organic matter.
Preserved offshore burial sites are extremely rare, with Israel and Denmark housing some of the only ones so far discovered.
The Manasota Key Offshore site is the first preserved offshore site from the Archaic Period discovered in the Americas, according to the Department of State website.
By studying the site, archeologists hope to learn how Archaic Americans lived, and how the rise in sea level which followed the last ice age affected the landscape and its inhabitants.
Respecting This Important Ancestral Site
BAR has mapped the area comprehensively and has taken soil and sediment samples. Through analysis BAR scientists hope to be able to understand the environment prevailing in the Florida Keys seven millennia ago.
Florida’s Department of Historical Resources is formulating a plan for the further investigation of the site working closely with the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Office of Historic Preservation.
“The highest priority of all involved is to honor tribal beliefs and customs with respect to this ancestral resting place,” the Department of State website stated. “The people buried at the site are the ancestors of America’s living indigenous people. Sites like this have cultural and religious significance in the present day.”
Duggins said, “Seeing a 7,000-year-old site that is so well preserved in the Gulf of Mexico is awe inspiring. We are truly humbled by this experience. It is important to remember that this is a burial site and must be treated with the utmost respect. We now know that this type of site exists on the continental shelf. This will forever change the way we approach offshore archaeology. As we continue to learn as much as possible from the site, we look forward to sharing that knowledge with the people of Florida.”
Dr. Paul Backhouse, tribal historic preservation officer, Seminole Tribe of Florida, said, “We are happy to be working, shoulder to shoulder, with the Bureau of Archaeological Research and the residents of Manasota Key to identify a preservation plan that will allow the ancestors to continue to rest peacefully and without human disturbance for the next 7,000 years.”