By Pam Darty
Who doesn’t love a mystery? Most of us are captivated by them and driven to discover and disclose them. For decades so many of us have been compelled by Shell Mound, the gigantic crescent-shaped archaeological site that sits on the coastal zone of Levy County within the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge (NWR). Over the past three years Dr. Kenneth Sassaman and his graduate students have been surveying the 30 coastal miles of the Lower Suwannee NWR and the 13 islands of the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge in order to reveal some of the truths about the mound and the cultures that erected it.
Back in March, Florida Archaeology Month, the Refuge staff hosted Sassaman’s update of the ongoing archaeological surveys of both Refuges at the Cedar Key Library. His PowerPoint presentation showed reconstructed images of the many “shell rings”, or shell heaps engineered into semi-circles surrounding village sites across the Cedar Keys. At that presentation, Sassaman announced his next project, Shell Mound, would be open to public viewing. He also arranged for volunteers from the Refuge and Friends of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge to participate.
Over the weekend, Sassaman and his dedicated graduate students, teachers themselves, spent Friday, Saturday, and Sunday digging and sifting, measuring and graphing, packaging and packing, as well as photo-documenting the site. Any visitors who happened onto the dig were invited to view its progress and to ask questions. Sassaman seemed to thoroughly enjoy escorting onlookers, pointing out both test holes, and walking visitors over to the screening process, so they might see artifacts.
Throughout the weekend, volunteers from the Refuge corps and the Refuge Friends group helped sift buckets and buckets of mollusks finding fish and bird bones, along with shell tools and bits of pottery shards. On Saturday, an exciting find nearly 2-meters deep, down past the millennia worth of shells, to the amber sand was a good size Deptford Period pottery shard. Another exciting find was a chert core which could allow a cutting edge to be created at a moment’s notice.
Handled by white cotton gloves, each artifact will be processed at the Florida Museum of Natural History and the pieces of this 5-acre puzzle, will be united in order to tell the story of the shell cultures who constructed the 28-foot tall landmark on the Gulf. In about a year, the dedicated people of University of Florida’s Department of Anthropology will return to Shell Mound to discover the rest of the story.