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Date of Issue: January 14, 2009

Preserve to celebrate area's 'pre-history'

Archaeologist Bill Burger walks through Neal Preserve.
A burial mound at Neal Preserve.
With the removal of Brazilian pepper and Australian pine trees in Neal Preserve, endangered Florida cotton trees began to emerge this winter.
Fiddler crabs crawl at low tide in Neal Preserve.
A shell midden in Neal Preserve.

The shells lay scattered — sandy and faded, cracked and chipped, not at all the kind of polished treasure beachgoers generally gather up.

But the shells are treasured relics of this area’s prehistoric past, evidence of a people living on the western shores of Manatee County.

On a recent morning, archaeologist Bill Burger trekked into Neal Preserve to revisit Perico Island’s “pre-history” past and to discuss the county preserve’s future.

The preserve, on 132 acres just east of the Anna Maria Island Bridge on the south side of Manatee Avenue, is not yet open to the public. But officials expect that by the time they ring in 2010, the public will be visiting Neal, a key component in the network of conservation properties in west Manatee County.

The county acquired Neal in 2005 from developer Pat Neal and has since received grants from state and federal sources for improvements and conservation work.

This year, under the direction of the county’s natural resources department, the preserve will gain a kayak launch, shell trails, a 20-foot observation tower, parking for about 10 vehicles, as well as a host of native plants.

Burger is the project archaeologist. From his home in Terra Ceia, he analyzes the data and history compiled by past researchers at Neal, as well as the artifacts he’s found to document the preserve’s past.

Burger began his recent visit at the gated entrance that is usually locked to keep out trespassers. From his spot, he could see the eastern shore of Anna Maria Sound.

“There were a number of shell middens here once, and some remain,” Burger said.

The shell middens of Perico Island were mined for road-building material, first to build Manatee Avenue from downtown Bradenton to 75th Street and later to build the causeway east of 75th Street.

A buckboard wagon probably was employed to haul and drop the shell. “It allowed the shell to fall, and you have shell-rut roads,” Burger said.

On property now part of the idled SevenShores development, a shell midden once rose up 20 feet high and covered an area of 1,000 feet.

“A mountain of shells,” Burger said, “left by prehistoric people.”

“All we can say about them is they are prehistoric aboriginals,” he continued. “It is pre-history, there are no names and never will be names. All we have are the physical remains of the people.”

“It is not legitimate to project those names thousands of years into the past. People need a name and a handle, but we don’t have names for these prehistoric native peoples.”

The mountain of shells and other middens existed in the mid-1800s, when a Cuban fisherman who would give Perico Island its name arrived. The fisherman had tried to establish title to property in Charlotte Harbor, but was denied, said Burger.

“We do know Perico was up here in the 1840s,” he said, and he likely guided early settlers in the area.

But physical evidence of Perico, who probably lived on a midden,  “would have been the first material taken away” by road-builders.

As he stepped through the entrance to Neal, Burger stood before an expansive clearing, where in late 2008 Australian pines and Brazilian peppers were cut to allow native vegetation to grow.

Motorists passing by the preserve have likened the area to a bombsite, but Burger said the removal of the invasive plants was necessary for Florida species — flora and fauna — to thrive.

On the northwest edge of Neal, Burger bent to point to a soft white piece of fuzz on a wisp of a tree.

“This,” he said, “is wild cotton. It is a Florida endangered species.”

The cotton tree came up after the non-natives were cleared. “It’s been struggling for light,” Burger said. “This is the first time I’ve ever seen it.”

Burger wondered aloud whether long-ago inhabitants used the cotton for clothing, fishing line or nets.

Nearby, under a bush, Burger pointed to a pile of white feathers — not prehistoric evidence, but recent evidence of a bobcat meal.

Throughout the preserve, Burger has placed small yellow flags to designate where he has taken samples.

The soil, he said, yields clues about the land’s story.

So do the plants.

A cluster of mother-in-law tongue, for example, indicates a home once stood in the northwestern corner of the preserve. “That’s non-native and typically a domestic ornamental plant, suggesting a house was here,” Burger said.

The shells also yield clues.

Middens were early garbage dumps —shells were discarded food containers. By analyzing the types of shells, Burger can learn more about the time of year that people inhabited Perico Island.

As for dating the shells, Burger plans to conduct radiocarbon-dating tests and continue test excavations, small holes that go a couple meters deep. Already he has conducted about 450 “shovel tests,” one every 10 meters in the preserve.

“The idea is to recover material in context, to peel back the layers of the story,” he said. “Archaeology is about how you find material. We are not collectors, we’re out hunting context, figuring out as much of the story as we possibly can.”

Burger expects to find evidence of people possibly as early as 1,000 B.C.

“The site has been used by many different people over a very long time,” he said, adding that the riches of Sarasota Bay first brought people to the location. “We don’t see agricultural use among prehistoric peoples of Florida. It was the richness of the estuaries that brought them.”

Burger stepped over an artificial Christmas tree and noted that it was not left by Native Americans. “There’s been a lot of illegal dumping over the years,” he observed.

He arrived in a clearing where, 65 years ago, a project of the Civil Works Administration — not  to be confused with the Civilian Conservation Corps — led to the discovery of human skeletons.

“Perico Island was selected as one of the CWA’s archaeological sites,” Burger said. “The place looked a lot different then than it does today.”

The director of the Perico CWA project was Marshall T. Newman, a researcher with the Smithsonian Institution.

The researchers first found a small burial mound and the remains of about 45 skeletons. Newman, according to Burger, called the site the “cemetery area” and dated it to about 200 B.C.

“Work here was difficult because of the height of the water table,” Burger said.

At a larger clearing nearby, Newman’s team discovered 185 skeletons, and fragments of human remains still exist at the site.

“This burial mound probably dates to about 0 in time,” Burger said. “Males and females, mostly adults, without any grave goods were found.”

Neal Preserve also contains a small landlocked pond — now called “Kidney Pond — that Burger said might have been made by early inhabitants.

Neal also contains evidence of modern-day developers.

In the 20th century, land on Perico was cleared for crops. Ditches were dug to drain the marsh and eliminate mosquito habitat.

In the late-1960s, a company sought to develop the Neal property, which was cleared. Bulldozers and chain saws were used to rip out mangroves.

“The abuse this property has been subject to,” Burger said as he emerged from a woodsy area of the preserve onto barren salt flats.

In the sunshine, at low tide, hundreds of fiddler crabs crawled on the soft ground, sounding like popcorn popping. An osprey was perched in a tall tree and several heron sat in young mangroves.

Burger said more wildlife can be expected as Neal Preserve is returned to a more natural state.

And, he said, history also will be preserved.

The shells, left by prehistoric people, will remain.

The burial sites will remain, and will be identified.

And the story will come together.

“Prehistory is broad brush,” Burger said. “It’s like house paint, not a fine brush. But we are learning.”