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Settlement Patterns: Earthworks and Canals

The prehistoric adaptation to the wet prairies and marshes along the whole length of the Kissimmee River and surrounding Lake Okeechobee contributed to the development of a unique type of settlement. It was as monumental a task in its time to modify, using handle tools, and adapt the watery environment for human use than it was the 20th Century drainage initiatives to adapt the land for cattle and agricultural use. Elevated earthworks and mounds constructed from sand and muck provided platforms for houses and other structures.

The earliest earthwork features were large circular ditches, some as large as one-half mile in diameter. Archaeologist William Sears hypothesized that these circles were drain fields for growing corn, but this theory is now not widely accepted by scholars. Archaeologist Bob Carr believes these circles were used as fish weirs and were possibly the first fish farms in North America.

Early Belle Glade settlements were placed around a circular ditch with house mounds along the edges. Radiocarbon dates indicate that this settlement system was in place as early as 400 BC at Fort Center (around the time Athens was fading as a world power but before Rome started to win control of the Italian peninsula).

By AD 1200 (the time of the Crusades) earthwork settlements had become more complex, characterized by elevated circular ridges with spoke-like linear ridges. Belle Glade settlements stretched across southern Florida northward to Lake Kissimmee and as far south as Boynton Beach in Palm Beach County and an outlier near the present-day Miami International Airport. A typical earthwork complex included a large house mound, smaller mounds, linear ridges and canals, and a burial mound.

Earthworks of the Belle Glade Culture
The hallmarks of the Belle Glade Culture are the impressive, large earthworks that dot the Lake Okeechobee region. These earthworks include mounds, ditches, borrows, and embankments. Sites commonly have combinations of the different types of earthworks. Belle Glade earthen structures are found in all sizes and shapes. Some of the more impressive sites are found in savannahs, mostly along creeks. These ancient sites may include circular ditches, linear embankments, and combination of mound and embankments.

The oldest earthworks of the Belle Glade Culture may be the circular ditches, along with some habitation mounds, identified at Fort Center and dating to before 450 BC. Mounds are the most widespread feature in of the Lake Okeechobee Basin. They are found standing alone, in groups or with other types of earthworks. The mounds are have been used for habitation, burials, and as architectural elements.

Ditches are another feature of the ancient culture. This earthwork type is most observable on aerial photographs. The earliest of the ditches can be found at Fort Center with an approximate date of 450 BC. Ditches are circular (many have been documented in the Okeechobee area), square, or rectangular. Another type of ditch is the canal ditch that served as transportation routes for canoes but some may have been just architectural elements, too.

Two other earthwork features are borrows and embankments. Borrows are places where the earth has been dug to construct mounds. Once the earth has been removed these borrows, or pits, are left behind and sometimes they are filled with water and used as ponds.

Throughout the Okeechobee area borrows are known at a few sites, which include Fort Center, Lakeport Circle Ditch, and Maple Mound. Borrows have been classified as circular and crescent-shaped geometric patterns. Two borrows have been classified as effigy borrows. One is shaped as a pestle (Pestle Earthworks site) and the other is an anthropomorphic figure (Oxer Borrow). Even though borrows are known in the region, they have been poorly documented.

On the other hand, embankments are well known in the Belle Glade Cultural area and serve as links to all other earthwork elements. Archaeologists have recognized that embankments are linear (most ending at a mound) but some are curved. The most delicate of earthworks, embankments have been lost to agricultural activities and cattle-raising.

Some of the Belle Glade Culture sites include:
Belle Glade, Palm Beach County
Big Mound City, Palm Beach County
Big Gopher, Palm Beach County
Maple Mound, Hendry County
South Lake Mounds, Hendry County
Tony's Mound, Hendry County
Clewiston Mounds, Hendry County
Fort Center, Glades County
Ortona Mounds, Glades County
Mulberry Mound, Glades County
Circle Canal Site, Glades County
North Fisheating Creek Circle, Glades County
Lakeport Circle Ditch, Glades County
Pestle Earthwork, Glades County
Oxer Borrow, Glades County
Fort Kissimmee Earthworks, Okeechobee County
Fulford Earthworks, Okeechobee County
Clemens Square and Mound, Okeechobee County
Underhill Sawgrass Pond Site, Okeechobee County
Barley Barbar, Martin County

For more information:
Jerald T. Milanich. Archaeology of Precolumbian Florida. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994.

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

Robert S. Carr. “Prehistoric Circular Earthworks in South Florida,” The Florida Anthropologist, 38 (1985): 288-301.

Robert S. Carr, David Dickel, and Marilyn Masson. “Archaeological Investigations at the Ortona Earthworks and Mounds,” The Florida Anthropologist, 48 (1995): 227-264.

William Gray Johnson. “A Belle Glade Earthwork Typology and Chronology,” The Florida Anthropologist, 49 (1996): 249-263.

__________________. Remote Sensing and Soil Science Applications to Understanding Belle Glade Cultural Adaptations in the Okeechobee Basin. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Gainesville: University of Florida, 1991. Click here for online edition.

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