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About:  The beautiful Crystal River is about six miles long. This park is located approximately half way between the spring fed source in Kings Bay and its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. This location must have appealed to aboriginal people as it provided easy access to both fresh and salt-water environments. One half mile West of the park the Crystal River splits. The southern branch is known as the Salt River. It provides another avenue of access to the salt marsh, many small islands and the Gulf. The shallow waters of the Florida Gulf Coast provided a wide variety of seafood to its early inhabitants. Expansive grass flats extend many miles into, the gulf and are interlaced with a network of oyster beds.

The site was used by this areas earliest inhabitants thousands of years before to the arrival of the Europeans in the New World. Perhaps 10,000 years ago, the site was likely used for short time periods by people who traveled in search of food. For thousands of years this hunting and gathering strategy worked well and the site continued to be seasonally occupied. As the coastal population increased, complex social structures emerged that resulted in the formation of regional communities.

The Crystal River Site became the regional center for the Florida Gulf Coast Deptford people. A place to which they would travel, for religious or political guidance, ceremonial gatherings and trading. It is estimated that by 1000 A.D., the population along this portion of the Florida Gulf Coast numbered 7,000 to 10,000 people. Here, the people relied on the rich marine estuaries to provide their growing families with food. The estuaries provided well. This is evidenced by the shell heaps that are here and at hundreds of smaller sites in the area. These low lying shell heaps, composed of discarded food stuffs and household materials, are routinely referred to as middens. To some, these relate to our modern day landfills but to others they represent the life of the community that once existed here.

The park’s midden area had its beginnings sometime prior to 500 B.C., eventually covering an area of about 1300 feet long, 100 feet wide and seven feet deep. The deposits are arc shaped, consistent with other Deptford Period sites. At the extreme west end of the midden there are two small mound structures. These two mounds were not mapped during the first exploration of the site. Perhaps they remained hidden by the dense vegetation which previously covered them. Archaeologist Ripley Bullen was the first to locate and map them in the 1960’s. He called them the “Priest’s Mound” and the “Village Mound.” This terminology was based on evidence of a ramp that was once on the eastern side of the Priest’s Mound. Apparently the earthen ramp pointed to the northeast from the Priest’s Mound, through the center of the Plaza to a similar ramp that is still located at the far end of the plaza at the Second Temple mound. The Second Temple Mound is the result the tend that allowed for larger and higher mounds to be constructed.

The tallest and most impressive mound on the site is referred to as the First Temple Mound. Early Accounts of the large platform mound describe it as a large shell heap from the top of which one could see the Gulf of Mexico. According to C.B. Moore’ s 1903 description, the mound stood 28 feet 8 inches high, with its summit plateau measuring 107 feet in length and 50 feet wide. A shell ramp, measuring 80 feet long and some 14-21 feet wide extended to the northeast across a shell causeway. The causeway led towards the burial area and a marker stone. Because of its ramp and flat top, the mound gave every appearance of the typical “temple” mound often associated with later prehistoric cultures of the Southeast.

In 1960, a previous landowner removed two thirds of the mound for fill. That activity uncovered charcoal lenses on the northeast face of the mound, at a depth of 19 feet. Pottery shards found on the Temple Mound as well as a carbon dated charcoal lens (dated at 600 A.D.) seem to place the mounds construction during the Late Weeden Island or early Safety Harbor Period.

Today, additional plant/tree growth to the west block the view of the gulf, the ramp is gone and the shell cause way has been covered over but at it’s northern end lies the Main Burial Mound Complex.

This burial complex likely had its beginnings as a preconceived design. It was used during at least two of Florida’s many cultural periods. The mound’s earliest burial was about 250 B.C. with others taking place until sometime prior to 1300 A.D. It is estimated that this burial mound complex contains between 1000 and 1500 burials. The earliest excavations in this complex were conducted in 1903 by Clarence B. Moore, with his primary focus being the conical mound. The burials in mound in this component are believed to be the oldest at the site. The people buried in this mound, in many instances, were buried with exotic artifacts from the northern regions of North America. These items had been obtained through a massive trade network that existed at the time, now called the Hopewell Interaction Sphere. They included copper objects, mica, lead, and crystals. These types of artifacts, however, were not found in later excavations in other portions of the mound, indicating a breakdown in the trade network had occurred.

Archaeologist, Ripley Bullen using Moore’s information, was the first to apply modern archaeological techniques to the site. Through his research he was able to identify at least two different cultural periods that occurred during the site’s occupation. This was done by identification of specific pottery types and the realization that through time the burial practices and construction techniques changed as a result of influences provided through ideas filtering in from other regions.

Bullen, recognizing the significance of this pre-Columbian cultural center, urged the Florida Park Service to acquire it. After acquisition and its subsequent protection by the State of Florida, Bullen was called on to develop interpretive exhibits for the site’s visitors. His work also included the restoration of the burial mound structures damaged by previous excavations. In this task, he re-buried skeletal remains of 425 individuals which had been removed from this mound by Moore.

During land clearing in 1964, the most enigmatic archaeological features of the site were discovered near the main burial complex. These were identified by Bullen as ceremonial stones or stelae. Stele #1 is located approximately 75 feet east of the Main Burial Complex. On the North side of this stone, Which was erected around 440 A.D. there is the crude outline of a man’s face, shoulders, with flowing hair and an ear spool. The function that this stone played and the relationship with other stones placed on the site is unclear. One theory suggests that these limestone boulders were used as celestial markers in a seasonal calendar. More archaeological investigation is, however, needed to determine if all the stones have been located. Once this happens perhaps the stones social or scientific function may be better understood.

Little is known about the procession of ancient mound structure development at this site and others along this portion of the Gulf coast. Since the ancient people that lived here had no known written language, archaeologists rely on information gathered through the interpretation of artifacts in association with cultural features and other remains. They use the information collected to develop models of the ancient life ways. Due to the limited archaeological investigations that have been done here, trying to develop a model of day to day life is difficult. The dating of events at this site is based on dateable types of pottery and a few carbon dates taken from other portions of the site. The historically recorded life ways of similar coastal sites, like Safety Harbor, gives us some idea of how these mounds were used.

It appears that the changing social structure of the people using this center led to later construction of an additional ceremonial mound. This second Temple mound was probably constructed late in the Weeden Island or early Safety Harbor period. The reason for its construction is not clear. The platform appearance and its association with the plaza to its southwest indicate that it may have been used as a stage. Large groups of people in the plaza would be able to clearly observe ceremonies or occurrences taking place on top of the mound. The intact ramp leading from the top of this mound is in line with the remnants of the ramp from the priests’ mound at the other end of the plaza. Also in this line is another marker stone.

Stele #2, which is located near the center of the plaza behind the visitor center, like stele #1, has never had an excavation to a depth of more than two feet. Additional archaeological investigation may reveal the stones’ true uses. While many theories have been developed on how these marker stones were used by the people that erected them, each theory has many unanswered questions. Were these stones used. to anticipate seasons using the celestial bodies? Do they have some as yet undetermined relationship with the burial mounds. Was there intended placement with regards to burial mounds? This is not known, however due north of stele #2 there is another burial mound.

This smaller burial mound is believed to have been constructed during the same time period as the Second Temple mound. However, this date has not been confirmed and no specific dateable pottery was found in the mound. For almost four decades this sacred site has been open to the public under the protection of the Florida State Park Service. The mound complex was recognized as a National Historic Landmark in 1990 and continues to draw visitors from around the world. While the investigations of the site have answered many questions about the ancient coastal dwellers it also has provided many new ones. As Cultural/Heritage awareness increases and technological archaeology improves, perhaps many of these unanswered questions will in fact be answered. Only time will tell.

Historical information provided by Florida D.E.P.




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