Archaeology in Palm Beach County
Periodically since at least the late 19th century, discoveries and excavations have been made of prehistoric and historic sites in Palm Beach County. The major sites have revealed evidence of occupation from the Archaic and Glades periods (500 BC to AD 1763), but mostly from about AD 750-1500.
Excavations were funded under the Works Projects Administration (WPA) of the 1930s, and administered by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. In the 1940s and 1950s, University of Florida professor John M. Goggin recorded 42 sites in Palm Beach and Martin counties. When Ryan J. Wheeler, William Jerald Kennedy, and James P. Pepe reviewed Palm Beach County’s archaeological sites in the 1990s, they found many sites damaged or destroyed due to development since Goggin’s assessment. In 2004 Robert Carr, Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, completed an updated survey of archaeological sites in Palm Beach County. Following are some of the archaeological sites in the county, from north to south:
Loxahatchee River Complex: about six miles west of Jupiter Inlet; earthworks, now destroyed, and a sand mound; Jupiter Inlet Complex: a large shell mound on south side on inlet, partly under the 1898 DuBois house, excavated from 1884 to 1992; and on north side of inlet, a burial mound and several shell mounds at U.S. Coast Guard Station, excavated in 1885.
Riverbend Park: Indiantown Road, west Jupiter; land purchased in 1978 by Palm Beach County for a park; in 1995 archaeologists identified 61 historic, archaeological, and architectural sites reaching back to the Paleo-Indian period.
Riviera Complex includes two sites in Palm Beach dating to AD 750, and one site on the mainland in Riviera Beach, which Ryan Wheeler believed to be the main Jeaga village. In 1901 Charles N. Newcomb purchased the Riviera Hotel, built on a shell mound, and adjacent land to the west that consisted of mostly mounds. Newcomb, a scientist, created a map of the site as it looked with the streets of Riviera Beach in 1914, the original of which is at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. The long, narrow “Big Mound” reached from Lake Worth to West Park Drive, about five city blocks. When botanist John K. Small photographed the site in 1920, he noted it was “fast disappearing.” Although the Palm Beach Archaeological Society was able to partially excavate it in the late 1970s, it had been greatly changed during the urban expansion of the 1950s and ‘60s.
Guest Mound Complex: one of several sites originally on the barrier island of Palm Beach; nothing remains of the middens and mounds, including a large burial mound where the Graham-Eckes School was expanded.
Patrician: on the ocean, South Palm Beach; major village complex, including burial mound, dating to 500 BC to AD 1763; excavated about 1980 before removal for construction of a condominium. A sand mound at the north end of nearby Hypoluxo Island, also gone, may have been related; resident Gilbert L. Voss wrote in 1949 of having excavated this site. Both sites were described by J. Francis LeBaron for the Smithsonian Institution’s Annual Report of 1882.
Belle Glade: in the Okeechobee Basin, near the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee, about 1.5 miles west of Belle Glade; once on the Democrat River, which dried up as a result of drainage of the Everglades, canal construction, and development; in the 1930s, a burial mound and a habitation mound were excavated, dating to 1000 BC to AD 1600. Artifacts collected—including woodcarvings of animals and humans and three plaques—are at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, which managed the excavations.
Big Mound City and Big Gopher: ten miles east of Canal Point, in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. Ten miles east of Canal Point, these two sites have been protected since 1947 by their location in the J.W. Corbett Wildlife Management Area. Big Gopher is one of the best-preserved earthwork sites in the Lake Okeechobee Basin and consists of linear ridges, crescents, mounds, and middens.
Big Mound City is the only site from the Belle Glade culture on the National Register of Historic Places, added in 1973 as an example of a Calusa ceremonial complex. Its occupation is dated from as early as 500 BC until about AD 1650. Covering 143 acres, Big Mound City consists of at least 23 mounds, including two or more burial mounds, where the Everglades meets the higher pinewood flats. The intricate geometric arrangements of earthworks were made of yellow and white sand, except for a platform that contained extensive midden remains. Some of the platforms probably served to raise temples and residences above frequent flooding.
Boynton Cave: subterranean caves in a limestone beach outcrop; John Goggin reported in the 1940s or ‘50s that in a cave, “on the roof of the main chamber is a somewhat damaged and faded painting. It is a simple motif done in red paint.” A sketch supposedly done by Goggin has never been found. Some of the caves were sealed in the 1960s, and at least one since 2000, after a house built above it collapsed.
Boynton Mound Complex: in a cypress swamp bordering Arthur Marshall National Wildlife Refuge, thought originally to be on raised land where sandy flatlands met marshland; burial and sand mounds, midden, and earthworks; excavated in 1970s, when it was dated to as early as AD 750 and as late as 1763.
Boca Raton Inlet Complex: three shell and black earth middens and a burial mound; partially excavated about 1970 before development; dated AD 750-1763.
Spanish River Complex: Highland Beach/Boca Raton; one of the few large villages east of Lake Worth and one of the largest native sites in southern Florida; includes burial mound and Barnhill Mound; partially excavated in 1950s and ‘70s; nearby Rio Seco (Spanish River) disappeared during 20th century drainage work.
In 1953 promoter Esmond Gerrard Barnhill bought 24 acres in Boca Raton, north of Yamato Road and east of U.S. Highway One. The site contained a 20-foot-high burial mound, which Barnhill excavated with archaeologist Ripley P. Bullen of the Florida State Museum and his wife, Adelaide. They uncovered 72 bodies, probably Tequesta Indians, dating between AD 700 to 1300.
Barnhill turned the burial ground into “Ancient America,” where tourists could view the carefully arranged remains through glass partitions, in a tunnel through the mound. The attraction, also called “Burial City,” operated from 1954 to 1958. The mound is still visible in a greenspace within the Boca Marina and Yacht Club.
© Historical Society of Palm Beach County.