About two years ago, a diver looking for shark teeth bit off a little more than he could chew in Manasota Key. About a quarter-mile off the key, local diver Joshua Frank found a human jaw.
After eventually realizing that he had a skeletal centerpiece sitting on his kitchen table, Frank notified the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research. From analyzing the mandible, Underwater Archaeology Supervisor Ryan Duggins found that the piece was definitely not from someone living modern-day, and with that, he and his team went back to the original site, where they made a surprising discovery.
The site, about 21 feet underwater, held much more than an old jaw. The team found an arm bone, carved wooden stakes, skull fragments and much more. Much to Frank’s and Duggins’ surprise, this area closely resembled a Native American burial site.
Because of this resemblance, Duggins and his team immediately began working in line with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which ensures that any discoveries of Native American cultural items are protected and returned to lineal descendants and tribes. The Bureau is currently working with the Seminole Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office to determine the outcome of this discovery and is also consulting with the Miccosukees.
“I’m hopeful we’re going to be able to continue to work closely with them about the development of a long-term management protection plan so that we can think about this site, not just for the next six weeks or six months, but something that will make sure it will remain protected for 6 or 60 years,” Duggins said.
Paul Backhouse, director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, found out about the site about six months ago. He said that nobody expected such historical artifacts to turn up in the Gulf of Mexico and he, along with many others, were surprised by the discovery.
“We have not had a situation where there’s organic material present in underwater context in the Gulf of Mexico,” Backhouse said. “Having 7,000-year-old organic material surviving in salt water is very surprising and that surprise turned to concern because our job is to make sure those sites are respected and protected as best as we can.”
Neither Backhouse nor Duggins have any doubt that the remains are that of Florida Natives. Their main concern for the time being is intentional or unintentional damage to the site.
“We can’t do much about Mother Nature and erosion,” Duggins said, adding that Venice, where Manasota Key is located, is known as the fossil hunting capital. “It would be really unfortunate if an unsuspecting shark tooth hunter started digging in this resting place. That’s our big concern and the big hurdle we’re going to have – how do we keep people with good intentions from accidentally damaging the site and how do we keep people with bad intentions from intentionally damaging the site.”
For the time being, the jaw Frank discovered and other artifacts found by the Bureau are in the hands of Heather Walsh-Haney, a forensic anthropologist and associate professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University. She is in charge of stabilizing the materials and allowing them to slowly dry and desalinate in a secure lab. Doing so will prevent any degradation of the artifacts, which is what happened to the original mandible Frank found because he did not know proper conservation techniques.
Walsh-Haney said that maintaining the materials is laborious, as she has to pay close attention to the process details. For the hundreds of artifacts she is currently working with from the site, each one has to be handled gently and slowly moved from a saltwater environment to freshwater before being able to dry out. She constantly has to keep track of the temperature, pH and salt levels of the environments she’s placing the artifacts in to ensure they are not damaged. This amount of detail and precision takes time, and at just a glimpse of that timetable, it took Walsh-Haney roughly three months to stabilize only 20 artifacts.
Walsh-Haney said she remains “speechless” about the discovery, as it is the first time agencies have
requested her help with evidentiary material with dozens of stakeholders.
“Not only does the Bureau of Archaeological Research have requirements on what they have to do to document the site, but to know that I’m really working to help the Seminole Tribe and the Miccosukees conserve their history is incredible,” she said. “I’m blown away and emotionally touched by the trust I have in handling the evidentiary material.”
Once all the pieces are stable, the Bureau will collect the pieces and work with the Department of State to send out a formal notice to federally-recognized tribes. Ultimately, Duggins said all of the artifacts will be placed somewhere safe, either at the original site or on-shore with their respective tribe.
Backhouse said that THPO is going to recommend replacing the findings at the original burial site. Per Seminole customs, it’s important for Seminole remains to remain undisturbed.
“We’d never ever want or have ancestral remains here at the museum or anywhere on Tribal grounds,” Backhouse said, adding that he hopes to install a special security system at the underwater site that will allow THPO to monitor the area remotely. “Disturbing ancestors is the number one thing not to do from a cultural perspective and we do respect that in everything we do.”
Records show that around 7,000 years ago, Florida Natives used small freshwater ponds to bury the deceased. Only a handful of sites like this have been uncovered throughout the state, but Duggins said that all of them are above-ground, making this underwater discovery particularly unique. As to whether these pieces specifically derive from the Seminole, Duggins said that all the Bureau knows for sure is that the artifacts came from Florida’s people.
“What we know is that these are the remains of Florida’s indigenous people and the Seminole and Miccosukees are Florida’s recognized tribes,” he said. “It’s very important that we, especially us in this office, do whatever we can to ensure everything is protected as best as it can be.”
Walsh-Haney added that people have to remember that the artifacts discovered are from a sacred cemetery.
“It’s important for people to understand that our indigenous Floridians used the land in a way that still allowed them to work the land and harvest the actual materials that could be used as a representation of their beliefs and their ways,” she said.
Until more information about the area is revealed, the Bureau is working with local and state law enforcement, county officials and homeowners near Manasota Key to protect the site. Duggins hopes that working with local and state agencies will engage the public to act in good faith and refrain from harming or manipulating the ancestral site. So far, he said that communication with agencies and locals has been positive and everyone is willing and eager to help.
There is no set timeline for research, but the Bureau hopes to have a more definite plan of action as soon as possible. If other divers come across other interesting artifacts or have artifacts from this particular, they are encouraged to contact the Bureau as it is illegal to disturb burial sites in Florida.
“What I’m really hoping is that this site will spark a new discussion and a new interest in archaeology, not just here in Florida, but perhaps throughout the entire Gulf and maybe elsewhere,” Duggins said on a final note. “Now that we’ve been able to demonstrate that a site like this can exist off-shore, I think it’s going to have to result in other agencies and people being aware of the possibility of sites like this existing out there now. … I hope it’s a game-changer.”