The Experience of Fieldwork

By Wyatt Halbach

The Tribal Archaeology Section (TAS) spends a large portion of our time conducting fieldwork. This means that we are out in the pastures, roadways, and other natural environments of the many reservations that are a part of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Over the course of TAS’ history, our staff have had many exciting experiences in the field and a couple fun discoveries. This blog post is going to be all about our current TAS employees and some of the things that they have discovered and experienced while working for the STOF.

The first few things we’ll talk about are the incredible artifacts that employees have found while working on the reservation. Shawn Keyte, Jack Chalfant, and Hillary Bedrosian all recall finding certain artifacts as their most memorable moment working for the STOF. One of the most incredible things that Shawn has found is a columella pendant. A columella is the twisted center piece of a snail shell. These types of shell have been used in the past and the present as beautiful pieces of jewelry. When Shawn uncovered this artifact as part of a large project in 2016, he originally had no idea what it was. However, the small holes in the artifact are telltale signs of human modification. Jack Chalfant, a tribal member and an employee for almost 10 years, has discovered many exciting things while working in the field. Foremost in his mind was when he discovered a bone point. Although finding faunal bone is an extremely common occurrence in the field, finding a shaped piece of bone like the one Jack found is rare. Finding any type of tool is always rewarding and helps add more information to the archaeological record! In addition to the bone point that was found by Jack, during her time here, Hillary managed to find a chert flake in one of her digs. This flake is special for Hillary and for the rest of TAS because just like the bone tool that Jack found, stone tools are also a rare find. These artifacts are incredible bits of Seminole history that we will not soon forget about!

Columella pendant found by Shawn Keyte

Moving on from artifacts, Maureen Mahoney and Mark Savany both have exciting experiences based in expanding the knowledge of sites. For Maureen, her most memorable experience has been looking at old aerial photos that have been taken of the reservation. These photos have been taken every couple years since the 1940s and they help those of us in TAS establish where areas of interest may lie. The thing that excites Maureen the most about these old aerials is seeing the layouts of old camps that do not remain in the present day. These camps are often not visible in the archaeological record, so it is special to be able to talk to tribal members who once lived in these camps to get information. One of the most important parts of our job here in TAS is talking with Tribal members and hearing their stories. Moving from the aerials to the ground, Mark’s most memorable experience has been going to explore sites in person and gathering information that allows us to set the specific boundaries of sites. This can mean shrinking sites, keeping them the estimated size, or expanding them. Getting information about these camps and sites is not only important for the historical record, but also a great way to reach out to the community which makes it an unforgettable experience.

Aerial of a Seminole camp

It is important to note that although many of our experiences in the field are centered on work, some can be centered around fun as well! Ben Bilgri and Wyatt Halbach both have exciting experiences from the field like this. One time, while Ben was working in a hammock on the reservation, a friendly pit bull managed to find him. While Ben continued to work, the pit bull cheerfully followed him to several holes, occasionally begging for some belly rubs. On the other hand, Wyatt had an experience with wild animals instead of domesticated. While doing paperwork on a pit that he had dug in a hammock, a litter of piglets came from seemingly out of nowhere and ran past, not two feet away from him. A few minutes after this litter ran past, a second litter also made their way by, following the same route as the first. Both groups met up with each other and wandered off into the interior of the hammock. Fortunately, there were no adult boars around, which would have been a cause for concern. Being out in nature for work provides plenty of experiences with the wildlife and domesticated animals. Although rare, some of these encounters can make an employee’s whole day or even week. Even though close personal interactions with animals is rare, it is always special to be surrounded by the beautiful goings-on of nature within the STOF reservations.

Over the years, the employees of TAS have all had some significant discoveries and experiences while doing work for the STOF. These things will not only give the employees something to remember for the rest of their lives, but it also gives us experiences to share with the community. Through this, they can learn more about what we do in the field and we can learn more about the history that we hope to preserve through our archaeological work.

Archaeology Isn’t Just Digging in the Dirt Anymore

By Shawn Keyte, Field Technician

In July 2019, myself and Ben Bilgri from the Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) went to the National Archives in Washington D.C. to find information on the Seminole Wars. The majority of historical records identify three Seminole Wars spanning between 1816‐1858, but for the Seminoles, it was one long war that lasted for 42 years. On this trip, we specifically focused on the Third Seminole War (1855‐1858) as this occurred primarily in the area surrounding what is now the Big Cypress Indian Reservation. We were in hopes of finding written correspondence, maps, or any other documents that would help us better understand how far the United States Government went in trying to remove the Seminoles from Florida.

The U.S. Military keeps extensive records of all the conflicts they are involved in, even as far back as the Seminole Wars. The records we were interested in are called “post returns”. These are basically letters from soldiers and officers that were sent to and from commanders that contained information such as supply routes, fort locations, weather conditions, troop movements, troop morale, and many other topics that paint a picture of what it was actually like at that time during this conflict. Other than oral histories from Tribal Members, this is the only way for us to get an idea what it was like for the Seminoles during this time period. The Seminoles did not keep a written history of the Seminole Wars, but by studying the U.S. Military’s records, we can better understand what happened first hand by some of those who were actually there. Although these records are from the perspective of the military personnel operating in south Florida, they can still help us to learn about the Seminole effort to defend their homeland.

In preparation for our research trip, we had identified the names of several soldiers, officers, military units, and military forts located in south Florida that were operational during the time period of 1855‐1858. Much of this information was gathered using previous research that had been performed by Ben and I, other members of the THPO, as well as books, documents, and Tribal Member oral histories. We used these names like keywords when searching the Archives’ record database, and by the end of the first day, we had several carts full of documents to begin looking through.

We found a plethora of new information on forts, such as a map from 1855 showing the locations of two prominent U.S. Forts, Fort Simon Drum and Fort Shackelford (Figure 1), as well as how and when they were built, and the materials used to build them. We also discovered a lot of new information about the skirmish that renewed hostilities between the Seminoles and the U.S. Military in December 1855. Tribal Member oral histories and previous literature is abundant in reference to this skirmish, but reading a document written by one of the soldiers involved in the fight really gave us insight into what happened.

Figure 1: Map of the Big Cypress Swamp drawn by Lt. George Hartsuff, acting Topographical Engineer,
2nd Artillery, 1855.

We hope to make future trips to the Archives and get even more information surrounding the Seminole War period that may not available to us by any other means. Having the confidence that the material we are presenting to the Tribal Community and the public is as accurate as possible is very important to us as we continue to help the Seminoles tell their story.

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).

image 1
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?

image 2
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.

image 3
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.

image 4.5 combined
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.

image 6.7 combined
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.

image 8
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.

image 9
Pygmy Rattlesnake (Venomous) (Photo courtesy of Shawn Keyte)

 

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!

Tribal Perspectives on Sea Level Rise and the Costs of Preservation at Egmont Key

By Nick Butler

Sea level rise in Florida is a real thing and is currently affecting thousands of significant sites along the coast. One site, Egmont Key, has been investigated by the THPO and may likely be completely underwater within the next 100 years. With the incoming tide of sea level rise, it is imperative that we capture the importance of this site and the gravity it carries in Tribal history.

Figure 1 Figure 1. Map of Egmont Key’s receding shoreline over the past 100 years.

In 1877, Egmont Key, an island located at the mouth of Tampa Bay, was approximately 580 acres in size. Over 100 years later, the island is just barely over 200 acres, as a result of erosion and sea water rising 4-8 inches in that time period. The Gulf of Mexico is swallowing up Egmont Key before our eyes. For the Seminole Tribe of Florida (STOF) and its members, Egmont Key represents the struggle between the necessity of preservation for future generations and the costs of those protections. Without immediate intervention, the island will only be a memory.

During the Third Seminole War, Egmont was employed as a concentration camp. Tribal Members have often likened Egmont to “our Auschwitz.” It’s a place of death, a crucible that serves as a memorial for Tribal members’ ancestors’ ability to endure the grimmest of hardships. As tribal member Rita Youngman explains, “Egmont Key is an important place since it is a reminder about how the Seminoles went on to survive one of the darkest periods in U.S. history.”

Tribal Members want action. It is their history to care for. “Whatever they can do, I want it preserved. Like they said, this is where she [Polly Parker] was. It’s like y’all said, we are losing sand and trying to get help with that, mainly,” said Nancy Willie. She is a descendant of Polly Parker, a significant Seminole figure who escaped capture while on the Seminole’s Trail of Tears and eventually made her way back home to south Florida.

Mrs. Willie, along with others, has only begun their journey into investigating ancestral heritage and the grave history of Egmont Key for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. She decided to make the trek to from the Hollywood Reservation on the latest community trip this past April.

Figure 2Figure 2. A testament to Polly Parker’s tenacity, six of her descendants journey back from the prison she escaped.

On April 5th, 2018 twenty-five to thirty members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida gathered from the Brighton, Big Cypress, and Hollywood Reservations to wait on a little ferry at a beach in Fort De Soto Park which is located just outside the mouth of Tampa Bay. Reaching later in life, Nancy Willie wishes to know more about the story of Polly Parker and others, so that she may share that knowledge with her children. If the island were to vanish, a vital touchstone to the Seminole ancestors would disappear with it.

Field trips have been successful for the purposes of educating members about the imminent challenges that are endangering Egmont Key. On these trips, they have the opportunity to witness for themselves the progressive deterioration, and it allows for the THPO to create a dialogue with the community.

Kevin Holata, a tribal member, shared his feelings about Egmont Key’s painful past. “It is a sensitive story and some tribal members may be hurt, but it’s about our history and it needs to be known.” There have been strides to keep the island intact. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers successfully completed two beach re-nourishment projects which used dredged material from the Egmont Canal. But is it enough to stave off the growing consequences of climate change?

Figure 3.pngFigure 3. April 5th field trip, Tribal members and THPO staff embarking onto the shores of Egmont Key.

In the summer of 2017, Hurricane Irma came barreling across the state, wreaking massive damage to Florida’s coasts, uprooting millions of Floridians from their homes. At Egmont Key, gusts of up to 91 miles per hour were recorded at the weather station located on the island. Structures that were once covered by beachy white sand now lay bare from hurricane force winds. Artifacts previously located during archaeological fieldwork have now been displaced from wind erosion.

Joe Frank, STOF BC Board Representative noted other communities all across the state have felt or will feel the harsh reality of “accelerated-climate change”, as evidenced by rising waters, beach erosion, and intensifying hurricanes. Among these issues, sea-level rise will surely be a herculean challenge in the years to come as waters encroach on shorelines. They will eventually inundate places of cultural and historical significance along the coasts. Places such as Miami Beach are already dealing with flooding during high tides.

Joe Frank, STOF BC Board Representative noted other communities all across the state have felt or will feel the harsh reality of “accelerated-climate change”, as evidenced by rising waters, beach erosion, and intensifying hurricanes. Among these issues, sea-level rise will surely be a herculean challenge in the years to come as waters encroach on shorelines. They will eventually inundate places of cultural and historical significance along the coasts. Places such as Miami Beach are already dealing with flooding during high tides.

Thousands of sites are threatened. Based on data from the Florida Master Site File (a registry of all cultural sites in Florida), a simple increase of three feet of ocean waters from current levels will impact 16,015 cultural sites; a further increase to six feet of sea-level rise will impact 34,786 culturally significant sites. Sites like these are valuable teaching tools that not only remind us of past social injustices committed, but can also instruct us on the future of the planet. “In the normal ebb and flow of human civilizations, when you have to rebuild,” says Mr. Frank, speaking on imminent impacts of cultural sites, “it’s best to know what they tried in the past, so you don’t end up making the same mistakes again.”

Figure 4.jpgFigure 4. Screenshot of NOAA’s Sea Level Rise Prediction Model. In an “intermediate” scenario by 2060, waters will rise approximately to 2 feet (0.6 meters) which will inundate over half of the island. From https://coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/tools/slr

The Tribe cannot be alone in this fight. The U.S. must step up its commitment to renewable energy. It has to further invest in environmental sustainability to combat “accelerated-climate change” from human activity by utilizing alternative forms of energy. It should be a global effort. As Mr. Frank points out, “What it gets down to is, yes, America and the whole world has to do a better job utilizing solar energy. I think there are a lot of countries that jumped on the bandwagon, and the United States just has happened to be dragging butt right now, kind of last in line.” Not only would these long-term investments help protect sites like Egmont Key, but communities living along the edges of the coasts of the United States could take a sigh of relief.

Figure 5.jpg

Figure 5. In the aftermath of Irma, beach sand washed out into the Gulf uncovering an underground sand barrier to help slow down erosion at Egmont Key.