Pineland (USA) : dig yields rare Calusa artifacts

Amy Bennett Williams

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There's a reason you won't catch most local fishermen using anything but synthetic nets: Saltwater and subtropics are brutal on natural fiber, rotting it to frayed pulp in one scant season.

Which is what makes a bunch of newly filled zip-lock bags exciting to an archaeological team that's spent the last couple weeks painstakingly digging on Pine Island: They're full of thousand-year-old Calusa Indian rope, net and twine, among other finds.

636257940849499914 5pinelanddigArchaeologist Karen Walker shows a section of cord found at the Pineland dig site. The cord was made and used by the Calusa people, who inhabited Pine Island. (Photo: Amanda Inscore/The News-Press)

No one has seen remnants of ancient daily life like this since the 1800s, when a Smithsonian expedition led by pioneering anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing unearthed more than 1,000 remarkably well-preserved artifacts, including the celebrated Key Marco cat near Marco Island.

Some of the more extraordinary things to emerge from the Pine Island pit are pieces of netting, complete with tied-on weights. Archaeologist Bill Marquardt, curator in South Florida archaeology and ethnography at the Florida Museum of Natural History and director of Pineland's Randell Research Center, points to a bagged white clam with a hole knocked in it, threaded with knotted twine.

Mound Key Calusa site focus of marine science students

"These ark shells they used to weight down their gill nets and their seine nets, with the knots still tied — that’s the kind of preservation we’re getting. In addition to that, we’re getting pieces of wood you can still see the working marks on, and seeds such as squash seeds that will help us figure out what kinds of plants they were using."

Most clues about the Calusa, who'd largely disappeared by the 1700s, come from the remains of their civilization buried in shells and mud of the huge mounds for which they're known. Such remnants add to scientists' ongoing understanding of the people who called Southwest Florida home for thousands of years before Europeans arrived in the 1500s, as do the writings of the Spanish explorers and evangelists who tried fruitlessly to win them over.

Hardy survivors, the Calusa developed a complex empire that exerted control over much of the peninsula. They built thatched huts, dug canals and crafted tools, utensils and art from bones, shells, clay and wood. Their culture will be highlighted at Saturday's Calusa Heritage Day at the research center.

Though scientists and volunteers regularly dig Calusa sites in and around Pineland, once home to the second-largest Calusa town, most of the excavations are high above the water table.

Hard things like shell, bone and pottery usually hold up in such places, but softer organic material like wood and plant fiber don't survive millennia when exposed to sun and air. If they're safely covered in liquid or mud, however, they can be preserved.

That's what happened at the Pineland site the University of Florida team just finished excavating, after a preliminary dig in 2015. The artifacts there were left (or dropped or lost) at a time when sea level was relatively low.