Photo Credit: Shell Mound on river bank from Florida Memory
By John Beale
Earlier this year in the Aucilla River, near Tallahassee, archaeologists found stone tools and mastodon bones with cut marks. These finds could mean the first humans lived in Florida about 14,500 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, when giant sloths and saber toothed tigers still roamed Florida. It put me in mind to reinvestigate early local history and while not that ancient, it does stretch back surprisingly far. Manatee County and Tampa Bay are peppered with Native mounds that pre-date European contact. These mounds fall into two time periods, the Manasota Culture (500 BC to 900 AD) and the Safety Harbor Culture (900 AD to 1700 AD).
The earlier Manasota mounds were mostly shell middens with a few small burial mounds. There were two mound complexes from the Manasota. One was on Perico Island consisting of two shell ridges, a burial mound and a shell mound; the other is at De Soto National memorial and is a combination of small mounds and shell ridges. During the period from 700 AD – 900 AD the Manasota Culture underwent a noticeable change with the arrival of the Safety Harbor Culture. The Safety Harbor Culture left far more of a mark with the building of large mounds. Often called temple mounds, they were just as likely to be the location of the chief’s house. At that time leadership and divinity were connected and elevating the chief closer to the sun was both an act of faith and one of political power. There were at least thirteen of these mounds located around Tampa Bay. The Safety Harbor Culture came from a time of plenty. With an increase in village population and availability of food, people began to specialize. Noble, priestly, and warrior classes rose above the regular villager. They spent their time leading, teaching, and protecting the villagers who worked to supply them with resources. Villagers paid tribute to their chief and small chiefs paid tribute to bigger chiefs.
These temples were major works and a significant display of wealth, requiring not just a large amount of material but enough food and time to dedicate a part of the population to building the mound. The largest in Manatee County is the Temple Mound on Snead Island, which is in Emerson Point preserve. Based on its size and a large platform attached to the mound, it is potentially the most significant of all the mounds built in the Tampa Bay area. The only other mound of a similar size used to be at the mouth of the Anclote River North of Tampa Bay but lacked the platform of the Snead Island mound.
The main part of the Snead Island mound stands 13 feet high and measures 150 by 250 feet. The raised platform projects off the west side measuring 3 feet high and 98 feet by 98 feet. Just moving the sand for it would have taken a year with 50 laborers working 7 days a week. Most of the mounds were built up over time, probably increasing in size with the power of the chief who lived there. Based on practices of similar cultures, a large addition had religious significance, with ceremonies performed before the new construction. Frequently they were coated with shells along the outside. The shells would have helped strengthen the mound and shone brightly in the sun. Old records about the exposed shell mounds at the De Soto National Memorial site note that it was so reflective that it was visible from the Entrance to Tampa Bay.
The mounds were generally aligned to one of four cardinal directions. The vast majority faced west or south with a plaza stretching out in front of it. Any mounds facing west, like the one at Snead Island, would have had the sun rise from behind the mound presumably increasing the connection of the resident on the mound to the sun.
If you visit Emerson Point Preserve and walk to the top of the mound the view today is limited by trees. Even still when you stand at the top of the mound you are standing at the center of a civilization that lived more than a thousand years ago.