New Histories of Pre-Columbian Florida

By Neill J. Wallis; Asa R. Randall | Go to book overview

1
Archaic Histories beyond the Shell “Heap”
on the St. Johns River

ASA R. RANDALL, KENNETH E. SASSAMAN, ZACKARY I. GILMORE,
MEGGAN E. BLESSING, AND JASON M. O’DONOUGHUE

Freshwater shell mounds have shaped the course of culture history on the middle St. Johns River Basin in northeast Florida for seven millennia. For the Archaic (ca. 7300–3600 cal BP) communities who initiated their construction, they were places of residence and ceremony. The fact that they deposited diverse objects, materials, and ancestors on mound surfaces and incorporated these items within them attests to the ongoing importance of shell mounds in Archaic lives. Subsequent St. Johns period (ca. 3600–500 cal BP) communities also engaged with them, often constructing mortuary facilities on mounds of great antiquity. Although they were largely ignored in the immediate post-Colombian era, they were rediscovered in the nineteenth century by archaeologists such as Jeffries Wyman (1875), who were interested in determining their origins. Their contents were distributed among museums and insights garnered from investigating them inspired archaeological research throughout the United States. In Florida, shell mound research formed the basis for the delineation of archaeological culture histories (e.g., Goggin 1952) and later provided the basis for advances in subsistence and settlement studies focused on middle Holocene hunter-gatherers (e.g., Russo et al. 1992). The monetary incentive of shell mounds did not escape curio seekers, land speculators, hoteliers, and shell miners either. Their collective exploitative actions resulted in the destruction or near-destruction of all but a handful of the mounds by the 1970s. The few that remain intact today are but a fraction of the scores of mounds that once dominated the otherwise flat, watery terrain of the St. Johns (figure 1.1).

Shell mounds persist today at the center of popular and intellectual histories. But what of the histories of Archaic communities encased within these places? Ironically, for such an enduring object of inquiry, shell mounds continue to be interpreted using nineteenth-century principles of archaeological knowledge. The

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