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Art and Cosmology

Native people believed that natural features such as the sun, moon, and certain animals had corresponding deities that directed earthly events and individual fortune. Representations of certain animals were often depicted on artifacts such as pendants and pins in an attempt to gain the powers and protection of those animals.

Shamans were a vital part of the cultural life of the People of the Water. Shamans were able to travel through realms others could not—through the worlds of the animals, across the skies,
under the earth and water, and between the worlds of the living and the deceased. It was believed that they had the power to heal the sick. They were consulted about ordinary events such as
hunting and fishing, and could predict the future.

The Spanish reported that the Tequesta, neighbors of the Belle Glade people, believed that a person had three souls. One soul was located in the eye, another in the reflection, and the third
in a person’s shadow.

Solve a mystery: “Symbol badges” found at Fort Center are made from silver, but similar artifacts made of other materials are found throughout south Florida. Scholars have a few guesses but no one really knows what they symbolize. What do you think? Match wits with the scholars: submit your ideas to us and include your contact information.

The striking art created by the People of the Water was not produced for art’s sake alone, but arose from the spiritual impulse to represent natural and supernatural forces. Elegantly fashioned animals reflected keen observation and the artist’s ability to craft from the rudimentary materials available images of their world. Archaeologists have found few representations of humans. If, as some scholars think, creating an effigy was an act of empowerment that imbues one with the spirit of the subject, then perhaps capturing human spirits was best avoided. The beauty and power of these wooden effigies leave us with regret that the finest Belle Glade art was made of material that decomposes rapidly, leaving few surviving examples.

Belle Glade Art
Human Effigies
Belle Glade artisans created extraordinary artwork and everyday items from wood, bone, and shell. They manufactured realistic human and animal forms from pine, cypress, and lignum vita wood which survived by being buried in muck and sand for millennia. There have been seven wooden human effigies and dozens of animal carvings recovered from south Florida sites.

During the 1930s excavation of the Belle Glade Mounds, wooden artifacts were removed from the site and included a pestle, plaque, realistic bird heads, and two standing human effigies. Near Pahokee on the eastern side of Lake Okeechobee, during a 1928 construction project, a carved cypress kneeling human effigy was recovered (this is now part of the collections of the Historical Society of Palm Beach County); a squatting human figure from Lakeport; a kneeling form from the Palm Hammock site in Glades County; and from the Calusa site of Key Marco, two human statues.

It is not clear if these human effigies represent a god, shaman, chief, leading tribal leaders, or ancestors, or some form of mortuary figures that were “guardians of the bone” and would later be buried. One kneeling form from Key Marco is thought to be a human wearing a Florida panther pelt and the kneeling idol from Palm Hammock is wearing an elaborate panther headdress.

All the figures share some common traits: similar forms, elaborate hairstyles, and are between 8 and 10 inches tall. Most are kneeling with hands resting on their knees, while two are standing. On some you can see facial details, clothing, and personal adornments. All of the wooden effigies are weathered, some worse than others.

Fort Center: Animal Forms
Animals are common south Florida art forms. Some of the best-preserved wooden statues of animals have come from Fort Center, Belle Glade, and from the Calusa site of Key Marco. At Fort Center, archaeologists found at least 150 wooden objects, many of them carved animals that were used as structural supports for a platform, ornaments, or symbols. Wooden artifacts have also been found at other south Florida sites south of Lake Okeechobee and the Caloosahatchee River. These artifacts include canoe paddles, dumb-bell shaped pounders, anthropomorphic figurines, bowls, and other wooden items.

Fort Center woodworkers used pine logs 30-inches in diameter to carve large statues. Pine trees were abundant and readily available to them. Cypress trees were also available but were not selected. William Sears, in charge of the excavations at Fort Center, thought the reason pine was chosen was because pine was good for “shaping with the tools and skills available…well-defined grain and its tendency to split readily along this grain.” He listed other characteristics of pine that included a hard surface good for cutting and scraping of details and its durability.

Different types of tools to shape the pine found on site include different kinds of stone and flint, shell, and shark teeth. These were fashioned into tools such as stone knives, shell celts and adzes, and heavy stone celts which the carver used to shape the wood. Shark teeth, hafted and unhafted, were used for fine detail work and were better than stone blades as finishing scrapers.

The animals represented on the platform were turkey, bear, cat, bobcats, owls, dogs, eagles, hawks, woodpeckers, wood duck, ibis, spoonbill, heron, osprey, egret, otters, running panther, and other unidentified animals.

Wood was essential to the lives of both the People of the Water and their Calusa neighbors for everyday items and as a way to express themselves artistically. Archaeologist Gordon Willey said that Belle Glade woodworkers’ artistic talents were “one of the most developed of southern crafts.”

Beliefs
Both the Calusa and Tequesta had very similar beliefs as recorded by the Spanish. The Belle Glade Cultural area is different in that their beliefs not recorded. All that archaeologists and historians can do is make inferences based upon excavations of sites. Archaeological finds at Fort Center suggest that the “inhabitants had strong totemic beliefs” because of all the wooden statues of mammals and birds and that they probably believed in an afterlife.

The Calusa held strongly to their beliefs and customs and even though the Spanish repeatedly attempted to convert them to Catholicism, the Calsua did not give in. They were interested in European clothing, metals, food, and wine, but they were not interested in religious conversion.

In 1567, Father Juan Rogel, a missionary to the Calusa, recorded that:

They believe those who govern the world to be three persons ... The first one, who is greater than the other two, is the one to whom the universal government of the most universal and common things belongs, such as the heavenly movements and the seasons .... The second one is greater than the third, that to him belongs the government of the kingdoms, empires, and republics. The third one, who is the least of all and the one who helps in the wars. And to the side to which he attaches himself, they say that that one gains victory.

The Calusa say that when a person dies, the soul enters into some animal or fish. And when they kill such an animal, it enters into another lesser one so that little by little it reaches the point of being reduced into nothing.

For More Information:
John H. Hann. Missions to the Calusa. Introduction by W.H. Marqurdt, translations by John H. Hann. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1991.

____________. Indians of Central and South Florida 1513-1763. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003.

Darcie MacMahon and William H. Marquardt. The Calusa and Their Legacy: South Florida People and Their Environment. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Barbara A. Purdy. Indian Art of Ancient Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996.

William H. Sears. Fort Center: An Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1982.

Ryan J. Wheeler. Ancient Art of the Florida Peninsula: 500 B.C. to A.D. 1763. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, University of Florida, 1996.


 

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