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Burial Mounds Provide Clues to Past Cultures

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Daniel Hughes
Photo Credit: Former County Archaeologist

Sarasota History - Burial Mounds Provide Clues to Past Cultures photo

In memories, we often see time as if filtered through those proverbial rose-colored glasses. We recognize the glory of the day and forget the less pleasant aspects. For archaeologists in Florida, the era of the 1920s and ‘30s seems to be one of those time periods.

Florida was vastly different in that era than it is today. There were large cities and towns, but vast portions of the state were still ripe for exploration. Many of the large archaeological sites located within Sarasota County had yet to be plundered or hauled off for road fill. It was also a time for the early formations of our understanding of the complex cultures that had once inhabited the west coast of Florida. Every site presented unlimited potential for gaining new understandings.

The Englewood Mound has the distinction of being the first officially recorded site in Sarasota County, although many sites had been excavated throughout the county prior to this official recording. The mound measured 110 feet in diameter and 13 feet in height, possibly having had a conical top. If the top had existed, it had eroded somewhat before excavation.

The excavation was the combined effort of both the Smithsonian Institute and the State of Florida. Dr. Marshall T. Newman of the Smithsonian Institute led the excavation of the mound. Ten men worked on the mound for approximately two months. The men cut a 70-foot trench across the mound, stepping across the walls of trenches to prevent collapses due to the softness of the sand.

The excavations revealed a mound that had been constructed in two episodes. In the lowest levels of the mound, Newman discovered that the mound had originally been a pit into which 124 individuals were interred in a mass burial. After the placement of burials, a thin layer of red ocher (a red clay containing iron) was placed over the burials. A mixture of red ocher and sand forming a slight mound followed this layer. Afterwards, plain brown sand was piled on top to form a small mound to reach a height of approximately five feet.

The second episode of mound construction was not as elaborate as the first episode. The second episode is believed to have occurred shortly after the first mound had been completed. The size of the mound was now more than doubled in the second episode as new yellow sand was placed on top. Burials were randomly placed in the yellow sand and occasionally they penetrated into the first mound. From this period of use, 139 burials were added raising the total number of burials to 263.

Today as we look back at the mounds, we can elaborate on the significance of Dr. Newman's early work. For instance, we now know that the Englewood Mound was constructed and used during what is now called the Englewood Phase of Safety Harbor culture, spanning the time period from A.D. 900-1100. The society that built this structure was socially organized into a chiefdom, whereby there was centralized authority and ranked classes. The first internment may represent the death of a significant individual who may have been buried with his or her followers, their remains having been stored awaiting the significant person's death. The later burials and additional mound building may have been the work of a successor, as the burial mound was used as a communal burial location from multiple sites.

The Englewood Mound provided archaeologists some of the clues to cultural formations in southern Sarasota and northern Charlotte counties. We can think of this period of the 1920s and ‘30s as a golden era, where the amount of questions we sought answers to equaled the available resources. Today, intact burial mounds are very rare and we have many more questions than resources. Archaeologists must search for every scrap of information and often they find themselves researching in collections of the past; excavating the excavations of this golden era.

Information for this article was obtained from Gordon Willey, "Archaeology of the Gulf Coast - 1949" and George Luer, "An Introduction to the Maritime Archaeology of Lemon Bay," in the Florida Anthropological Society Publication, November 14, 1999.