Florida's Deep Past: The Bioarchaeology of Little Salt Spring (8So18) and Its Place among Mortuary Ponds of the Archaic

Article excerpt

Little Salt Spring is a large sinkhole located near the western coast of Florida that has produced human remains dating to the Middle Archaic. Excavations spanning several decades have reinforced its place in Florida's prehistory, yet this is the first comprehensive analysis of skeletal remains produced from the site. The well-preserved remains consist primarily of femurs. Stature and femur dimensions are similar to another Archaic Florida population, Windover (8BR246). Little Salt Spring is one of several mortuary ponds bound temporally and geographically to the Archaic period in Florida. The similarities in use and interment style hint at the possibility of cultural continuity among the inhabitants of Florida's Archaic.

Background

Florida is synonymous with water. It is rimmed by the longest and most ecologically diverse coastline within the contiguous forty-eight states and continues to be shaped by wind and water. Today, more than half of Florida's 14 million residents live in coastal zones (Davis 1997). This attraction to water has existed since humans first wandered onto the peninsula. The living sites of our earliest coastal residents have been swallowed by the inundation of advancing seas. Following the Late Glacial Maximum, the planet warmed. By the beginning of the Holocene epoch, glaciers were reduced in size, elevating sea levels and submerging the scant evidence of early Floridians as the coastline migrated inland.

But the early inhabitants of Florida were also drawn to the numerous inland freshwater sources that dot the landscape. Lakes, rivers and springs provided water necessary for drinking, fishing, and utilitarian purposes. In some cases, ponds and springs also provided a place for the interment of the dead. Little Salt Spring (8S018) is just such a place. Located in Sarasota County in southwest Rorida, the spring is one of several bodies of water within the state that served as a cemetery for the people of the Archaic period.

Waller (1983) reported that avocational SCUBA divers exploring southern Sarasota County for new dive sites noted extensive scatters of human bones in the basin of Little Salt Spring by the early 1950s. But it was in the late 1950s that the exploration of both Warm Mineral Springs (8S019) and Little Salt Spring by William Royal (Steen and Stephens 1961) made the scientific community aware of the archaeological potential of these sites. Royal, a local diver and avocational archaeologist, and marine biologist Eugenie Clark of the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory made numerous SCUBA dives into Little Salt Spring and Warm Mineral Springs beginning in 1958 (as described in the autobiographical accounts of Clark 1969 and Royal 1978). They recovered hundreds of disarticulated human bones in both springs, and a human skull with brain tissue in the latter (Royal and Clark 1960). John Goggin (1960), a pioneer of academic underwater archaeology in Rorida, briefly describes the discovery of human bones in Little Salt Spring.

Between 1971 and 1980 Carl J. Clausen was employed by the owner of Little Salt Spring, the General Development Corporation to direct archaeological research in the spring. The investigation would also include, to a limited extent, the nearby slough (an erosional drainageway that empties into the spring from the northeast), as well as its adjacent midden deposit. The midden caps a limestone ridge immediately west of the slough (Figure 1).

The slough and midden constitute a Middle Archaic cemetery and settlement, respectively (8S079). Clausen et al. (1979) estimated, in a report on the archaeological work at Little Salt Spring during the 1970s, that between 100 and 1,000 Archaic burials rest in the slough's peaty sediments, as well as an unknown number of burials in the Little Salt Spring basin. In addition to numerous disarticulated skeletal material that other divers observed underwater between the surface of the spring basin and the "drop-off" at 13 m, Clausen and his associates discovered two partially articulated burials, one on the west side in only 2 m of water, and another in the northeast quadrant at a depth of 8-9 m (Clausen et al. …