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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
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
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.
information provided by Florida D.E.P.
12/18/03, This page has been viewed