Hurricane Irma unearthed pre-European era Native American artifacts on Marco Island

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer
May 07, 2018, 10:46:11 AM EDT

Hurricane Irma dug up some interesting ancient artifacts at the Otter Mound Preserve on Marco Island, Florida, this past fall, which gave archaeologists a look into the history of the Calusa Indians.

The Calusa Indians were also known as the Shell Indians because they lived on the sandy shores of the southwest coast of Florida.

This isn't the first time a storm has unearthed old artifacts, so archaeologists made sure to keep an eye out for any exposed relics. After Hurricane Irma's rampage in Florida, the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) found unearthed artifacts while monitoring the site.

The purpose of monitoring is to see how sites are doing, not to change or remove anything.

"We noticed at Otter Mound [preserve] many trees were toppled by the storm, and their roots had pulled up many artifacts. We contacted Collier County, who manages the land, to let them know about the situation and see if we could assist." said Rachael Kangas M.A., RPA, public archaeology coordinator for the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN).

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(Image via Collier County Government)

According to Kangas, the artifacts pulled up by the roots of fallen trees were mostly shell tools and pottery from the pre-European contact period, probably made by the people known as the Calusa.

"There were also some historic artifacts like glass from settlers who lived at Otter Mound after European arrival. These artifacts help tell the story of this site from before European arrival in Florida all the way through to early settlers on Marco Island," Kangas said.

"After our initial monitoring, we contacted Collier County, and they arranged with the Marco Island Historical Museum to collect artifacts visible in the tree roots," Kangas said.

FPAN archaeologists assisted in the systematic collection of artifacts visible in the tree roots; since Hurricane Irma exposed the artifacts, the archaeologists did not need to dig or excavate the site.

"We spent one day on-site systematically collecting the artifacts visible in the tree roots. Our goal was only to remove artifacts that might be easily accessible to passers-by. After collection, the artifacts were put in the care of Collier County," Kangas said.

Kangas said it did not appear that the hurricane damaged the artifacts, other than unearthing them and exposing them to the elements.

"Our concern was more that people would remove artifacts from the site without realizing they were illegally damaging the site," Kangas said.

After the systematic collection, a local tribe expressed their concern that the archaeologists had removed artifacts that were naturally unearthed, and they thought would be better kept safe in the ground.

Some tribal representatives voiced their worries by saying the removal of any items from their natural resting place might upset the tribe’s ancestral spirits.

"My understanding is that the county worked with the tribe to ceremoniously re-bury the artifacts. The goal of the project was to try and keep the artifacts safe, and in this situation they are best kept safe in the ground," Kangas said.

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It is important for people to know that if they ever find an artifact, the best thing to do is to take a photo with a scale (a pen or water bottle in the photo is a great scale) and to take a GPS point with their phone of where the artifact is (a screen shot of a mapping application is also helpful).

In addition, removing artifacts from state, federal, and some county and city lands is illegal.

"If they remove the artifact, even to turn it in, we lose valuable information about context- what other artifacts may be nearby, where exactly the artifact was found, and any other clues about the site," Kangas said.

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