Indiana Jones and the Pile of Trash

By Brandy Norton, Field Technician

Everyone thinks archaeologists live a super exciting life like Indiana Jones, running through booby traps and being scared by snakes. Half of that is very true…unfortunately, it’s the part about the snakes. Working as an archaeologist can be exciting, however, my definition of exciting is not going to be included in the next adventures of Indy on the big screen! Unless they really want to film “Indiana Jones and the Pile of Trash.” You see, archaeologists love a big old pile of trash. We call them middens to be a little more scientific. Middens in South Florida usually contain lots of what we call faunal remains, which are anything left behind when an animal dies, such as bones, scales, and shell. These faunal remains can tell us many things, including what people ate and where they lived. Middens also contain pieces of pottery (called sherds), bone tools, and occasionally stone tools (called lithics)–basically anything that people used and then threw away.

TreeIslandGoogle
Google map imagery of tree islands. See the classic tear drop shape.

Tree Islands

Archaeologists often find middens on tree islands. A tree island is an area of elevated land within the Everglades that was carved out by water flowing around it. The elevation paired with the availability of fish and turtles made these tree islands the most suitable area to live.  These places are often referred to as “hammocks.” Over time they developed a characteristic tear drop shape, making them easy to spot from above. Tree islands contain lots of vegetation, the most prominent tending to be oak trees and palm trees, but plants with edible fruits and berries, such as beauty berry and citrus trees are also common.

2014.13.505_Photo 1
What’s left of the turtle? Lots of shell!

Vital Information Discovered

The Tribal Archaeology Section (TAS) began investigating one tree island in 2016. We were able to recover over 24,000 faunal bones that let us explore the past lives of Okeechobee area people. We were able to get dates on some of the faunal remains, telling us when they were left behind, sometimes within a hundred years of their use. Knowing the time frame in which artifacts were deposited allowed us to compare those dates to large climatic events that have occurred in the last 1,000 years. This helped us to identify patterns in the availability of certain animals when climate was warm and wet versus when it was cold and dry. The most commonly identified animals were turtles, fish, and snakes. These are all aquatic (or water) species. These were the top three species throughout all climatic events, but the overall availability of these species decreased from A.D. 1430-1820. Deer were more common during droughts that occurred during this time, but they never cracked the top five! This means that, no matter what the weather, aquatic species were the most reliable.

TaxaByClimateEvent
Taxa is a term for that refers to a broad range of animals when they cannot be classified more specifically. This chart shows the most common taxa from our investigations.

Confirming Faunal Remains Through Oral History

However, faunal remains cannot tell us why people do what they do. We have to rely on other methods to further understand what the faunal bones are telling us. One method the THPO uses often is called ethnography. Ethnography involves talking to the people who are currently living on the land (which here would be the Seminole Tribe of Florida) in order to understand what happened in the past. Because the people currently living in the Everglades have the same plant and animal resources available to them as the prehistoric occupants, we can try to see  what oral histories say about what people were eating and if that resembles the faunal remains we have found in our excavations.  If they are similar, we can make comparisons between the ways those animals were used now and how they would have been used in the past. Not exactly an Indiana Jones suspense tale, but exciting to us as we continue to learn more about the Everglades and the Seminole Tribe!

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