A Feast of Snakes?

By Brandy Norton, Field Technician

In prehistoric Tree Island middens (old piles of trash), a large amount of animal bones are often found deep within the ground.  At two test units excavated at the North Crescent site on the Brighton Reservation, the Tribal Archaeology Section (TAS) has uncovered literally thousands of bones, over 40,000 in fact. The majority of these bones belong to three types of animals: turtles (including softshell, cooter, and snapping turtles), fish (including bowfin, catfish, and garfish), and snakes (including corn, king, eastern diamondback and other rattlesnakes, and water moccasins).

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Water Moccasin (Venomous) also known as a Cottonmouth (photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

These bones can often be interpreted as evidence of what prehistoric people ate. This makes sense when you think about how many people consider fish and turtles to be a delicious meal. Based on similar evidence, researchers have long assumed that the only reason for snakes to be present in the midden would be because they, too, were being eaten. However, the Seminoles disagree with these findings. They would never eat snakes because of cultural taboos. Snakes are generally avoided and shouldn’t even be touched. So why are they in the trash with things that are obviously food?

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Two test units from the North Crescent excavations

In order to understand some reasons why snakes might be there, we had to do some research. This included analyzing the evidence of burning and cutmarks on the bones. Burn marks on the bones could indicate the animal was cooked. The presence of cutmarks could be evidence of butchering the animal.

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Water Snake (Non-Venomous) (photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

What did we find?

There was consistently less burning on snake bones than on turtle and fish bones. Only 5% of snake bones were burned, compared to 7% of fish bones and 24% of turtle bones. The difference between burning on snakes and fish bones is not large, and the fact that there is any burning at all needs to be explained. This is where talking to Tribal members, such as Quenton Cypress, comes in handy. Quenton noted that snakes were unwelcome in camps and often killed so they could not return. Venomous snakes would be thrown into the fire because people would not have wanted to accidentally step on one and inject themselves with venom.

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Eastern Diamondback Vertebrae (Venomous; left: not burned, right: burned) (photos courtesy of Samantha Wade)

Overall, only 3% of the snake bones had cutmarks, whereas 24% of deer (another undisputed food source) had cutmarks. Quenton suggested that cutmarks would not necessarily be present because snakes would have been knocked on the head before being thrown into the fire. This would be especially important for venomous snakes as mentioned above. Since we only recovered snake vertebrae (back bones) and no skulls, it is difficult to prove or disprove that theory.

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Calcined Water Moccasin Vertebra (Photo courtesy of Samantha Wade)

No cutmarks were found on venomous snakes at any point in time. Non-venomous snakes, however, did have cutmarks. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were butchered though because the cuts could be from killing the snake.

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Example of a Cutmark on a Cow Middle Phalange (photo courtesy of Samantha Wade)

As you can see, there isn’t an easy answer as to why snakes are commonly found in middens. However, using interviews with Tribal members, like Quenton, is one of the most important aspects that differentiates tribal archaeology from archaeology in general.  In the academic world, it is easy to make assumptions based on the European perspective and these are not always entirely correct. That is why it is so important to understand the past with the aid of oral histories in order to see the full picture.

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Pygmy Rattlesnake (Venomous) (Photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

 

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Conservators – The Original Photoshop

By Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits

The main purposes of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum are to tell the Seminole story and to care for the objects of the Seminole people. There are many formally prescribed ways the staff does these things at the Museum. Further, the team sees itself as a resource to the community. Sometimes that means using these technical skills in less formal ways.

Robin Croskery-Howard is the Conservator for the Museum. She likes to say her job is “Objects Doctor.” She makes sure the healthy objects stay healthy by monitoring the conditions in which they are stored and displayed. She also provides treatments to objects when they are brought in “unhealthy” or due to old age which makes them susceptible to developing problems while in the Museum’s care. These treatments are usually preventative in nature, but sometimes she needs to be proactive and fix something that has broken.

As a result, Robin is able to share a great number of tips with Tribal community members on how to care for their most precious items. Attending events such as the Senior Center lunches, she shares information on how to safely store these items, how to make lasting repairs, and who might also be able to repair the items in question. Sometimes, when her schedule allows and her skill sets are best suited, she is able to step in and make the repair herself.

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Pictured here is Robin making repairs to a physical photograph. The photograph of cattleman Junior Cypress (who the Junior Cypress Rodeo and Entertainment Complex in Big Cypress is named after) had heat sealed to the glass of the frame. This happens frequently to photos when they have been in their frames too long, sometimes too close to a lamp or window. Robin had to carefully separate the image from the glass, and gently pull away the sealed portion from the image. Loss of emulsion, the top layer/ image part of a photo, is almost always inevitable. But here Robin was able to pull the lost piece away from the glass afterwards and perform a procedure called bridging. Using a very expensive Japanese tissue paper and creating a special kind of glue, she creates a piece of backing to stabilize the detached piece and affix it back to the original image. By using these very particular materials she not only fixes the image but ensures that it will stay intact for as long as the photograph exists.

Next Robin will still need to scan the image to make a few adjustments in Photoshop. You might ask, “well, why doesn’t she just do that in the first place?” Photoshop is great tool that can provide pristine copies and even ‘fix’ images through the use of filters. But, it only ever makes copies; the original will still need repairing. In some cases, this is fine. People are okay with getting a good copy instead of holding onto the original photograph. However, the staff knew the community member wanted to keep the original as well as have copies to share with others.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Re-writes History

By Julie Ruhl, Museum Collections Assistant

As the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s new girl on the block (I’ve been working here less than four months) I have been learning every day about issues impacting the Tribe.  NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) is one of those issues.  Domonique deBeaubien, the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) Collections Manager, who deals with this federal code every day, has this to say:

The current state of NAGPRA is varied across the US, with some institutions ready and willing to do the right thing, with others lagging behind the curve. The Smithsonian however, doesn’t fall under NAGPRA. Their repatriation policy is guided by the NMAI Act, which requires very little of Smithsonian Museums with regards to repatriation procedures, and is well behind nationally accepted museum best practices. The Smithsonian’s lack of Native inclusivity in their repatriation process is rooted in the inherent colonialism of academia, which is something we are fighting to change.

The following article is very relevant right now. It looks more critically at the African American Museum, but it certainly can be applied here: https://tinyurl.com/yxhlar2s

The Museum has recently been called upon to work with the THPO to assert and document the Seminole Tribe’s true history. Seminoles and their ancestors have inhabited Florida for thousands of years, not for only the last 150 years as written in most history books. We recently utilized our archival collection to further this research and to provide objective information pertaining to this subject.  We discovered key pieces of information and provided them to a Smithsonian representative to further validate the evidence of the Seminole’s longstanding Florida roots. This information, along with oral histories and other academic work, is being taken back to the Smithsonian Institution to support our continuing efforts to have the Tribe’s ancestors returned home.

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This historic document supports the Museum and THPO’s mission to provide the accurate history and ancestry of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, while also detailing the original arguments for draining the Everglades (ATTK Catalog No. 2004.1.844)

 

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In this journal article, Andrew Frank makes many valid arguments for the Seminole cause and brings forth a significant amount of evidence to validate his arguments. Dr. Frank has done a good deal of research on the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Florida history (ATTK Catalog No. 2019.6.13). If you’re interested in reading Dr. Frank’s article, follow this link:
https://tinyurl.com/y2p77ea8

According to Mary Beth Rosebrough, Research Coordinator for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum:

This is the time when the Seminole Tribe of Florida is re-writing history, setting aside what has been written in schoolbooks and perpetuated by the media. American military history tells the story of three Seminole Wars. To the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the descendants of those that evaded capture and removal, it was one long War – 40-plus years of turmoil and harassment and conflict. The Seminole Tribe of Florida is also proclaiming its ancestry, not just as people who migrated from northern states, but as descendants of those earlier tribes known to archaeologists as the Calusa, the Apalachee, the Tequesta, etc. Both of these changes are critical to a new understanding that Tribal history belongs to those who lived it yet deserves to be universally heard.

In helping the Seminole Tribe of Florida bring their ancestors home and in helping to re-write history, I am fortunate every day to be involved in something bigger than myself.

Saving History in the Digital Age

By Dave Scheidecker, THPO Research Coordinator

It all started with a lightning strike. One random act of nature on the island of Egmont Key started a chain reaction… and a wildfire. That wildfire cleared a large area of the island of dense overgrowth, revealing ground and ruins that hadn’t been seen in decades. This gave the archaeologists of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office a chance to survey the island where members of the Seminole Tribe had been held prisoner 160 years before. The survey led to a renewed interest in the Seminole History of the island that is now under threat, being washed away by erosion and climate change. These efforts led to new collaboration with the University of South Florida 3D Lab, a project to digitally preserve the Island before it is gone!

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The USF 3D Field School team plan their scanning strategy for the day.

In order to record the Island, we first had to receive permission from the state rangers and the park service. Then the USF professors and students took the Egmont Key Ferry Service to the island, riding with other visitors while bringing with them supplies, including multiple FARO 3D scanners and even a quad-copter drone! The team set to work, arranging the scanners to get the best possible angles to record structures like the Egmont Lighthouse and Battery Charles Mellon. The drone flew overhead of the lighthouse, the cemetery, and the old helipad built where historians believe the prison that held Seminole captives had been located. All of this information was then brought back to the 3D lab and sewn together by the students into lifelike computer models.

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The students of the USF Field School arrange FARO laser scanners to get the best possible overlapping views of the Egmont Lighthouse.

We try to preserve the history so that it isn’t lost to the sands of time, and in this case with the sands of the eroding shore. This has been done by recording and sharing the stories of what has happened, and what has gone before. But historians don’t need to be limited to historic methods, and new technologies give us incredible new ways to share these stories. When this projects is complete, people will be able to visit Egmont Key on their computers and even their phones. They’ll be able to walk through the lands like the Seminole ancestors did, and experience their stories in new ways. Long after the island may be gone, the story will be preserved online for the generations to come.

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The combined scans come together in the lab to replicate the buildings on Egmont Key. When finished, this will be a full color virtual explorable model!

Pinball Machines are Fickle but Ours Has Attitude

By: Nora Pinell-Hernandez, Exhibits Fabricator

Our giant “Journey to a New Home” pinball machine or as I call it, “Pinball V. 4.0”, is temporarily in our shop for repairs and improvements. The pinball machine works much how the housing process works for Tribal Members – confusing and slighting frustrating. Although our design includes infrared, magnetic and vibration sensors, it doesn’t always react the way it was engineered to. Someone wittingly mentioned that the pinball machine has taken the personality of the housing process because sometimes it takes a really long time to push your housing permits through and sometimes your contract gets stuck and no amount of shakes will get the ball rolling again. With this new round of improvements our sensors will be more accurate and the lights blinking as the ball rolls down the ramps will be almost dizzying – much how the real process it, but this time it will be intentional.

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Before taking down the pinball machine I made adjustments to the code of our Arduino (the micro-controller that reads and powers our lights and sensors). This is me, both frustrated and happy that I got the light bulb to light-up but not the motor.
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 “Journey to a New Home” with half the lights on. Soon it will glow with even more lights!
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This is the inside of the pinball machine. Notice ALL those wires? Some deliver power and some deliver signals to and from the sensor to the Arduino. The Arduino has a set of “if/else” statements that determines when a light or motor should be turned on.
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A family enjoying “Journey to a New Home”. They learned how to get the ball all the way to the end with a lot of patience and tactic.

We Are Here will be on view until the end of November 2019. Take a trip to our Museum and experience the frustration of going through the housing process on the reservation.