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Time Detectives

The unique character of Belle Glade Culture and the extent of its area were not known until archaeologists began excavations around Lake Okeechobee. The earliest of these archaeological investigations were conducted at the Belle Glade Mound under the direction of Matthew Stirling as part of the federally funded Works Project Administration in 1934. His excavations uncovered a deeply stratified mound that contained exotic artifacts of flint, basalt, and copper. Awls and knives made of bone were also uncovered. The WPA also mapped Big Mound City, and other archaeologists began mapping Belle Glade earthworks located throughout the region using aerial photographs to locate sites.

Intensive excavations at Fort Center by Dr. William Sears in the 1960s were used to try to prove his hypothesis that the Belle Glade culture originated in South America and that the people
practiced “savannah agriculture,” growing corn crops. Excavations at the Royce Mound in Highlands County on the Kissimmee River under the direction of Robert Austin uncovered evidence of Hopewellian trade including exotic artifacts such as mica and copper dating from 1800 years ago. A similar age was determined for the Ortona Canals by Robert Carr and the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy. (The people of the Hopewell Culture lived across the northeast woodlands and dominated the Ohio River region; they are named after the owner of a farm in Ohio where one of their mounds was first excavated.)

The Florida drought of 2006-2007 lowered Lake Okeechobee to record levels, enabling Palm Beach County archaeologist Chris Davenport and Belle Glade resident Boots Boyer to rescue a large number of artifacts, and document several lost sites that had been submerged since the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike. These sites are once again under water—a fitting memorial to the People of the Water.

Lake Okeechobee: Belle Glade Sites of Kreamer Island and Ritta Island
The drought of 2006-2007 significantly lowered the water level of Lake Okeechobee that previously unknown archaeological sites were revealed. These sites ranged from a sunken boat to huge piles of ancient pottery shards. As a result of the low lake level, Chris Davenport, Palm Beach County Preservation officer/Archaeologist, conducted an extensive survey of the area from 2007-2009.

Known sites in Lake Okeechobee included Ritta Island, Kreamer Island, and Pelican Bay (the bay has been filled in due to development and agriculture). The survey has provided important new information about trade and settlement patterns of the People of the Water. In the survey, Davenport comments that there were very different artifact collections which included exotic materials on Ritta and Kreamer Islands.

Kreamer Island
The recently discovered Kreamer Island site is covered with shell tools and pendants and ceramic pottery shards that include Belle Glade, St. Johns Checked Stamp, St. Johns Plain, and Sand Tempered Plain. The area of the artifact scatter is about 400 meters (1312 feet) east to west and 230 meters (754 feet) north to south. The site contained a large concentration of shell tools which is unusual because the lake is a freshwater body. During the survey, the shells identified included helmet conch, milk conch, queen conch, and hardshell clam. These were being traded inland from coastal areas and manufactured into woodworking tools such as hammers, adzes, and celts. A large number of shell ornaments were also on site. The shell ornaments found on Kreamer Island are not commonly found at archaeological sites. It is believed that the people living and working at the site re-manufactured broken shell woodworking tools into pendants and gorgets.

The Kreamer Island site was compared to the Belle Glade Mounds site and both had an overabundance of shell ornaments and tools, stone pendants, and pottery. But on Kreamer, stone was not found. Davenport suggests that stone was rare and most likely was collected at ceremonial centers and not at habitation sites. One other interesting fact was that Kreamer Island is the only location in the area where naturally occurring sand deposits are found.

Ritta Island
The Ritta Island prehistoric site that was surveyed is on the lakeshore along side a long dead river mouth. The artifact scatter at this site covers 334 meters (1095 feet) east to west by 400 meters (1312 feet) north to south with the densest grouping of artifacts along the river mouth and is about 330 meters (1082 feet) north to south and 280 meters (918 feet) east to west. Davenport and his team saw individual groupings of artifacts that may have been campsites.

Human bones were located on the site which covered an area of about 100 meters (328 feet) near the old river course. From field observations the there were three people of at least 18 years old. Since the bones were seen in the dirt and not buried, the State collected the remains.

Unlike the site on Kreamer Island, numerous stone tools, chert debitage (debitage refers to all the waste material produced during stone reduction and the production of chipped stone tools), and agatized coral was found. The chert recovered is consistent with chert deposits at Tampa and Peace River. The agatized coral was also from the Tampa area. Since Palm Beach County does not have chert deposits, the site provides evidence of long distance trade. A basalt pendant was also found on site. Once again this supports long distance trade because the nearest basalt deposit is near Florida’s northern border.

The most southern site where basalt items have been found is at the Miami Circle. This may suggest a trade route from southern Florida to Lake Okeechobee. Shell from south Florida was traded to the lake area in exchange for stone items such as basalt pendants.

For More Information:
Christian Davenport MA., RPA and Gregory Mount BA, Palm Beach County Government. Preliminary Results of the Boyer Survey: An Archaeological Investigation Of Lake Okeechobee, no date. Online at www.flarchcouncil.org/reports/BoyerSurveyLakeO.pdf.

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

Lawrence E. Will. Swamp to Sugar Bowl: Pioneer Days in Belle Glade. Belle Glade: The Glades Historical Society, 1984.

 

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