By Drew Sterwald
FGCU staff writer
Florida Gulf Coast University students had the rare experience this summer of working alongside archaeologists as they dug for clues about the lives of Calusa Indians, 16th century Spanish missionaries and others who lived on Mound Key at various times over the last 500 years or more.
The island, just 15 minutes from FGCU by car and boat, is steeped in centuries of history and widely considered a premier location for study.
“The archaeology here is as important as archaeology in Egypt – it’s part of the story of humanity,” says Victor Thompson, an assistant professor and director of the Center for Archaeological Sciences at the University of Georgia who was awarded several grants to conduct the excavation and research at Mound Key Archaeological State Park. “I’ve worked a lot of different sites all over the world, and Mound Key is among the best I’ve ever worked on.”
Atop mounds of shell and soil that reach as high as 30 feet above Estero Bay, eight FGCU undergraduates helped scientists and graduate students from the University of Georgia and University of Florida as they carefully excavated a 2-meter-square trench and a 4-meter-square trench mere centimeters at a time. Braving humidity, mosquitoes and sunburn, they sifted soil through screens as fine as 1/8th-of-an-inch, finding minute fragments of shell tools, pottery sherds and trading beads. They also hoped to unearth signs of architecture from the Calusa capital that reportedly occupied the island.
“None of us thought we would be able to do as much as we have – we thought we’d be lifting sandbags,” says Jessica Snodgrass, a senior anthropology major from Fort Myers. “After a couple of days of training, they let us go into (the trenches). We’re getting valuable field experience usually not available to undergraduates.”
Indeed, Snodgrass and other students learned hands-on how to excavate a site and identify artifacts, how to differentiate between shell and bone remnants by color, shape, texture and strength. They also learned how modern technology such as ground-penetrating radar helps pinpoint promising excavation sites and complements the low-tech sifting and eyeballing of dirt.
The three-week field school at Mound Key was initiated by Professor Michael McDonald and taught by Associate Professor Alison Elgart, both of FGCU’s Social & Behavioral Sciences department.
“This is a fantastic opportunity for us, working with experts like these,” Elgart says. “This is important history.”
McDonald calls it “a gold-standard experience” for students.
“Learning experiences like field schools create a place for the bulky kind of teaching and learning that don’t fit easily into the classroom format,” he says. “This type of learning engages students in a deliberate process of problem solving and critical thinking. Each semester, the FGCU Anthropology program provides opportunities for students to step out of the classroom and stretch their minds in unique and creative directions.”
Demand is growing for such opportunities. Half a dozen students were on a waiting list to get into the short, intensive course and have the opportunity of finding answers to fundamental questions about local history, how early dwellers interacted and how the fierce warriors known as Calusa lived, ruled and adapted to environmental changes.
Mound Key represents more than a pile of shell midden in a public park that has been trampled on by generations of island hoppers and amateur treasure hunters. Historical accounts say Spanish explorer and colonist Pedro Menendez, who established the first permanent settlement in the United States at St. Augustine, met the king of the Calusa at Mound Key in 1566. Spanish chronicles describe the building where they met as being large enough to hold 2,000 people.
Finding evidence to prove the structure was atop Mound Key excites experienced scientists as much as students getting their hands dirty for the first time. They found some deposits in the soil that suggested where building posts might have stood, but there is much more digging and researching to be done.
“This is an unbelievable experience. I feel privileged to work here,” Thompson said. “The questions you can answer at the site … how the Calusa used their resources, how contact with the Europeans played out, social and environmental issues.”
Co-directing the project with Thompson, Florida Museum of Natural History Curator William Marquardt says modern-day Floridians might be surprised to learn they have things in common with 16th-century Mound Key dwellers.
“People move to Florida recognizing advantages like the fishing, the climate, the ambience,” he says. “Centuries ago, the Calusa also realized this environment nurtures and provides for them on a daily basis in some of the same ways. How they adapted to sea level and other environmental changes could help us think through how to adapt to climate change.”
|Students and faculty sift through excavated soil for evidence of past civilizations at Mound Key.||Fragments of pottery uncovered at Mound Key will be cleaned and studied to determine its origins.|
|FGCU students help archaeologists excavate and flag findings in a trench at Mound Key.||A paintbrush helps expose the layers of shells and other materials that make up the mound.|