23 April 2006
Ancient mounds in Florida looted in search for gold
Under the supervision of cultural resource specialist Chuck Blanchard, five rangers spent a day restoring an Indian mound in Florida (USA), on which natives lived from about 500 BCE until contact with Europeans in the early 16th century. "Though I've been shouting about it for years, the nature of these sites as actual monuments to our past is beginning to catch on," Blanchard said. "If we treat our national monuments like national monuments, we're less likely to get this type of vandalism."
People were drawn to this site, officially designated CH-9 and once popularly called the Hippie Commune Mound, by stories of pirate Jose Gaspar. According to legend, Gaspar buried much of his ill-gotten gains in Indian mounds in Charlotte Harbor. Only one problem: Jose Gaspar never existed. Unfortunately, some people believed the tales and sought their fortune by ripping up many of the area's cultural monuments. "It's amazing what the whisper of gold will do," Blanchard said. Looters have ravaged Southwest Florida's prehistoric sites for other reasons, including lightning whelks, which are sold on the Asian market and turned into devotional candles. "There are so many holes in the harbor," Blanchard said. "There's not a site that's not badly injured."
Restoration of CH-9 started in April when Mary Glowacki and Kevin Porter of the state's Public Lands Archaeology Program visited the site. "We're doing salvage archaeology," program supervisor Glowacki said. "When the looters help out, we collect as much information as we can. The site had been dug into, and we wanted to get information from the site without digging more." Among other things, Glowacki and Porter documented the layers within the looter pit - shell mounds were constructed in individual building events over hundreds of years, each event marked by a visible layer of construction. They also collected artifacts, and took samples for radio carbon dating.
Another important part of this stage was collection of pottery: Different kinds of pottery were developed at different times over the centuries. If a lot of a particular kind of pottery is found in a layer of a mound, that mound probably dates to the period when the pottery was common. Sand-tempered plain pottery, for example, was the dominant pottery form starting in about 500 BCE, and pottery at the bottom of the looter pit was sand-tempered plain, so the mound might date back about 1,500 years.
Restoring a shell mound is hard, hot work. First, the bottom of the pit was packed with two tons of sand - 80 50-pound sandbags that the rangers tossed around like volleyballs. The sand was put in the pit while still in plastic bags. "When we restore a site, we usually put something in the bottom so, if there's a formal excavation in the future, they'll know where the looters stopped," Glowacki said. Then came the backbreaking work of filling the rest of the looter pit with shell. While they were digging up the mound, looters piled shell around the pit; over the years, the piles packed together and became almost rock-hard. "This is not the fun part," Blanchard said of breaking up the piles with pickaxes and then shoveling the shells into the pit. Finally, the shell was in place, and the mound looked almost whole.
Watching the work, Florida Park Service specialist Andy Goodwyne shook his head at the looters' destruction. "It's horrible that people think there's gold in these Indian mounds," Goodwyne said. "Digging these mounds is a desecration, something you just don't do. But people get gold fever - some people will do anything for a dollar."
Sources: The News-Press, Gainesville.com (22 April 2006)