The People of the Water
The prehistoric people of the Belle Glade Culture Area lived in a time before there was a written record or “history” of them. They had no written language, so there was no self-recording of their beliefs or achievements. No history of them existed until the Spanish explorers arrived in 1513. They flourished from about 2500 years ago to around AD 1700. By 1763, when the Spanish first left Florida, the Belle Glade people had disappeared as a result of disease and slave raids. They were rediscovered in 1934 when a team of archaeologists excavated a mound at Belle Glade and found enough of their cultural material to define them as a distinct culture. Their pottery, in particular, set them apart from other Florida cultures. Modern scholars named them after this site. They probably called themselves “the People.” A better name might have been “the People of the Water.”
The Belle Glade Culture Area
Where the People lived surrounds Lake Okeechobee and envelopes the Kissimmee River valley north to Lake Kissimmee.
During prehistoric times Lake Okeechobee was larger than it is today with a flow of fresh waters that began in the upper reaches of the Kissimmee River draining southward into the lake, and then seamlessly into the vast Everglades basin. Small rivers, like Fisheating Creek and Taylor Creek, flowed into the lake. The Caloosahatchee River drained westward out of the lake. These creeks and the vast, wet savannahs east and west of the lake were used for settlement, hunting, and fishing.
The people of the water developed subsistence strategies that were highly adapted to a world where canoes were the predominant means of transportation. Their material culture was characterized by a unique settlement system of earthworks, mounds, and canals. They built canoes and made hunting and fishing tools from bone, shell, and wood and created a distinctive ceramic tradition and sophisticated art.
The Belle Glade Mounds: A Type Site
Located near the southeast shore of Lake Okeechobee is the Belle Glade site, a two-mound site consisting of a habitation mound and a burial mound. The site dates to between AD 700-1500. At one time, the small Democrat River ran between the two mounds. The river has since disappeared because of drainage efforts.
The mounds were first excavated in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. During excavation it was found that this site had unique artifact characteristics that were different from other sites. Because of thees unique differences, the Belle Glade mounds became the “type site” for what would be called the Belle Glade Culture. The artifacts recovered from these mounds were the first to be recognized and described. Afterward, artifacts recovered from all other sites that exhibited the same features as those from the Belle Glade mounds, would be identified as part of the Belle Glade Culture. The name of the culture was taken from the nearby City of Belle Glade.
The habitation mound measured about 300 feet by 450 feet and was 10 feet high. The mound was made of discarded shells, bones, broken pottery and other items.
Opposite the habitation mound, about a hundred yards away, was the circular burial mound. This mound was really several different mounds on top of one another. At the lowest level was a small habitation midden upon which a muck mound was constructed. This was followed by a sand mound built on top of the muck mound with a limestone plaza or paved section located between the mound and the Democrat River. Later on, the sand mound was partially washed out by flooding which exposed human bones and wooden artifacts. A brief habitation level was found on top of the sand mound, which was then followed by the construction of the final sand mound centered on the first sand mound.
From the burial mound, archaeologists recovered carved wooden artifacts that included animals, heads of birds, paddles, pestle plaques, and two human effigies. They took samples of the sand to determine where the sand had come from; they were compared with other samples taken from the local area to as far away as the Gulf Coast. It was determined that the sand from the burial mound matched sand from Fort Myers Beach on the Gulf coast.
European objects were excavated from the uppermost level of the burial mound. These items included gold, silver, and copper beads, an iron spike, a lead pendant or plummet, several Spanish olive jar fragments, and numerous glass beads.
Modern houses now sit on top of the habitation and burial mounds.
Wood Artifacts from Belle Glade
During the 1930s excavation of the Belle Glade mounds, extraordinary carved wooden artifacts were recovered from the muck. Many of the carvings, which included animals, heads of birds, paddles, pestle plaques, and two human effigies, may have been for ceremonial use. The two human statues were described as “crudely made or incomplete.” One of them was a standing human with a head, nose, arms folded over the stomach, legs, knees, feet, calves, and a large hair-knot. The other was not complete with only “head, shoulders, arms, and feet blocked out.”
Several bird sculptures were expertly carved, especially a duck head. Using a forked tree branch, the native artisan carved out the duck head showing a feathered crest going up the back of the neck to the top of the head, circular eyes, and flat bill that is duck-like and is similar to other wood carvings from the Calusa site Key Marco, on Florida’s southwest coast.
Preserving the Wood Artifacts
When the wood artifacts were removed from the wet muck, archaeologists quickly placed them in a big tub of water that they had at the site. At the end of the day, they took these items back to their hotel room where they had a supply of paraffin. They melted the paraffin to completely cover the wood artifacts. They then sent the artifacts to the Smithsonian laboratories in Washington, D.C., where technicians would fully preserve the wooden artifacts.
Bibliography for People of the Water: The Belle Glade Culture Exhibit
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Unpublished Thesis and Dissertations
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