Evidence of a ceremonial complex on Perico Island more than 2,000 years ago is now in the hands of the South Florida Museum.
“Hands down, it’s the coolest project I’ve ever worked on,” said archaeologist Brad Lanning of SEARCH, the firm hired by Minto Communities-USA to manage the project.
Prompted by the developer’s plans to build a marina and boat storage at Harbour Isle, Lanning and a team of 30 archaeologists uncovered the base of a circular wooden structure and evidence of burial rituals during the final stages of excavation.
In 2016, SEARCH unearthed artifacts from One Particular Harbour Margaritaville, 12300 Manatee Ave. W., that filled about 50 boxes after studying and categorizing the excavated material. In 2017, the company returned to monitor the development work.
Lanning delivered 22 of the boxes — containing pottery sherds, shell tools, plant and animal remains that date from 2,000 to 5,000 years ago — with word about the mortuary complex to the South Florida Museum Dec. 3.
Chief curator Matt Woodside said he was surprised to learn of the ritual ceremonial site and is awaiting SEARCH chief archaeologist Robert J. Austin’s report, now pending review at the Florida Division of Historic Resources.
Data about the strata and conditions of found artifacts is just as important than the artifacts themselves, he added.
SEARCH removed layer upon layer of the marina basin where a roughly 100-foot long, 12-foot-high large shell midden had been constructed by indigenous people, although much of the shell had been removed in the 1920s to build roads.
In doing so, the archaeologists found a very rare preserved circular structure with 6-foot posts and wood-lined pits, where food had likely been stored.
Previewing Austin’s report, Lanning said groups of indigenous Tampa Bay people culturally linked by traded goods came to Perico Island for the ritualistic burials.
According to Lanning, there was communal feasting on large dolphin, shark, manatee and grouper — the dig uncovered vertebrae from a 500-pound fish.
The complex also included a fire pit of 6-8 feet in diameter, Lanning said.
Lanning said 71 “bundled burials” were counted but added the true number of people buried at the site was likely higher due to discovery of portions of other skeletons.
A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit that allowed the developer to proceed with the marina required Minto turn over to the museum the artifacts unearthed from the archaeological site and the human remains and mortuary objects to the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes.
According to signage on the Neal Preserve on the opposite side of Manatee Avenue on Perico Island, human remains were repatriated with the approval of the tribes, Manatee County and the state’s historic division.
No human remains or objects that were buried with the dead are part of the donation to the South Florida Museum. As an institution that accepts federal funding, the museum is prohibited from dealing in such items under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
According to the museum’s curation agreement, Minto paid $19,000 and delivered field notes with the boxes — down from original 50-plus boxes and $53,000 price tag.
To perform the excavation, Lanning said SEARCH used a well system that drew down 14 feet of water to preserve the wooden artifacts in the water where they were found. He said allowing air to penetrate the structure would have rapidly disintegrated the wood.
Woodside said he expects the museum to receive the wooden parts of the ceremonial complex in about a year.
“This is an exciting day,” said Jeff Rodgers, museum provost and chief operating officer, complimenting the work it took to bring it to the museum.
The provost, curator and archaeologist agreed much can be learned about how people adapt to rising sea levels at the end of ice age, when the sea stabilized and people lived near the water at much lower levels than now and then conditions changed and the water rose.
In Florida, Woodside explained that people were “fairly egalitarian,” without powerful elites or characteristic effigies. And the newly uncovered site shows how they came together for common rituals, including the sacred bundling and burial of their dead.
Past digs on the property included Marshall Newman’s 1930s Smithsonian excavation, which involved removal from a nearby cemetery of more than 200 skeletons that were shipped to the institution.
Also in the early part of the century, Montague Tallant, a Bradenton furniture store owner and amateur artifact hunter, found pottery, tools and European material from early Spanish explorations on Perico Island. Tallant’s discoveries led to the founding of the South Florida Museum.
Under state law, artifacts on private property belong to the landowner. As a result, Woodside said the museum has named the Perico artifacts “the Minto collection.”
Minto Marina LLC owns the submerged lands at the marina, while other Minto LLCs own portions of the residential development, with prior approvals from the city of Bradenton for 686 units on 353 acres.
In May, Minto president Michael Belmont announced the 6-acre marina where the SEARCH dig took place is for sale.
Brian Cale, vice president of development said Dec. 6 the marina, which opened for wet slip and storage leases in November, is still on the market.
A 131-room hotel and restaurant are slated to break ground in early 2019.
Minto purchased the 220-acre Harbour Isle property in 2009, built 411 residential units and plans to construct 275 additional units, according to Cale.
Cale wrote in a Dec. 7 email that SEARCH archaeologists decided against including shell material found in the marina that was “either non-artifact or redundant,” reducing the material and curation price estimates.
Woodside expects the Minto collection will first be part of “visible storage,” after staffers study, photograph and input the items into its database.
The curator plans to review the Austin report when it becomes available and follow up with Minto and SEARCH on the items not yet delivered, saying he wants to know what they are and their whereabouts.
Woodside pointed out the importance of full context in cultural interpretation.
“Just the quantity of things can be important,” Woodside said.
“Did you drink one beer, or did you drink 12 beers?”
“If you drank one beer and went home,” Woodside said, it’s one thing, but “if you drank 12 beers and got drunk,” it’s an entirely different story.