10,000 years ago, the Crystal River area was home to small bands of nomadic hunters and gatherers called Paleoindians. Nomads are people that travel from place to place in order to find enough food to feed their families. The groups were made up of extended family members or clan groups related by blood that were led by the wisest elder or a person who could provide the best leadership for the group. The Paleoindian pioneers came here only part of the year or perhaps seasonally. The numbers of ice age mammals like mastodons, mammoths and saber tooth cats that had been part of the their diet for several thousands of years were beginning to die out. The environment was becoming too warm for these animals to survive successfully, although it was cooler, dryer and more desert-like in Florida at that time than it is now. Most importantly and because sea level was lower, the coast was then somewhere between 60 and 100 miles further west from the present day shoreline.
This began to change as the sea levels rose when the ice covering much of the northern continents began to melt. By about 8,000 years ago, the rise in sea level and the warming climate caused a change in the coastal environment and the lifeway of the Paleoindian pioneers. The kin of Paleoindians, now called the Archaic hunting and gathering peoples, adapted to the changing landscape by creating new ways of life that met their families needs. These activities included small game hunting, collecting plants, fishing and shellfish harvesting. As the sea level rise began to slow down, stable coastlines developed. Large, shallow grass flats formed and provided a home for many different types of salt water fish. The salt water in the Gulf of Mexico mixed with the fresh water flowing from the rivers in the region. When the mix was right about 6,500 years ago - an estuary ecosystem formed making it possible for many other marine animals to live there. Oysters were a good source of plentiful food growing in the newly emerging estuary. As the estuary matured, the Native Americans continued to use the marine animals for food. They became fishermen and by about 2,500 years ago, they began to live year round near Crystal River. It is at this point that the sites along the Crystal River began to be occupied for all time. One of the principle sites is, today, a state park located about 3 miles down river from Kings Bay.
As the numbers of people living here increased, the need for good leadership also increased. Perhaps many elders of the various groups began to meet and solve community problems just as our city council or county commission does today. The Crystal River Site became a very important place were people living along this portion of the Gulf coast would come to for leadership, ceremonies, trading and burial of their dead. Just as in our communities today, customs, ceremonies, burial practices changed periodically during the 2,000 years of continuous settlement at the site. These changes include the construction of the different mounds that you will learn about in the next section.
As we travel down the streets of our community, we often see the trash cans sitting out waiting for the garbage man to empty them into the garbage truck. The garbage truck will then take the trash to the local landfill for disposal or perhaps to a local recycling center. Modem trash builds up in our homes through our daily living. Leftover foods, bottles, cans, paper, broken dishes that we no longer want or can use are disposed of.
The early Native Americans that lived year round at the Crystal River Site faced the same problems of trash disposal. Through their daily living they also had leftover materials that they no longer wanted or needed. As they had no method of hauling this material any great distance from their homes, they created a dumping area at the outer edge of their village. Unlike the modem landfill which will only be used for several years and then filled over, the Native Americans continued to use the same area for hundreds of years.
Over a period of approximately 1,900 years, beginning about 500 BC, the Native Americans at the Crystal River Site threw away great quantities of "midden material". Archaeologists sometimes refer to these Miidden Areas as shell heaps. That is because oyster, clam, mussel, conch, crab and snails seem to be just some of the favorite foods of these people. This, we believe is because the local estuary and the Gulf of Mexico provided such an abundance of these kinds of food. Also found in the Midden Area are various kinds of woodland animal bones, fish bones, turtle shells, broken pottery, broken hand tools and arrowheads. These finds represent the remains of past lifeways evident at the Crystal River Site.
By the time the Native Americans abandoned the Crystal River Site, around 1,400 AD, the midden had grown to be about 1,300 feet long, 100 feet wide and seven feet deep, and was crescent shaped. At the west end of the Midden Area there appear to be two small mounds. Whether these areas of the midden were deliberately shaped like mounds by the Native Americans or it happened by accident, through their routine dumping of trash, archaeologists are not sure. What purpose, if any, these two small mounds may have served is still unknown. Archaeologists call one Mound "J", the Village Mound, and the other is called "K", the Priest Mound. Perhaps they were the forerunners of the now famous Temple Mounds found at the site.
Persons in authority like to establish or place themselves above the general population to reinforce their status. Temple mounds in prehistory are believed to have been built for that purpose. Just as in today's society - the higher up you go - the more powerful you appear to those in the community. The largest/highest platform (Temple) mound was built sometime after 600 AD. Today, only about 1/4 to 1/3 of the original mound remains. In 1960, much of the mound was used for road fill by a previous land owner. When the bulldozer was taking the shell, a small layer of charcoal was exposed. The charcoal was 19 feet below the top of the mound. In 1965 some of it was collected by archaeologist Dr. Bullen, who took it to a laboratory to find out how old it was. He used a method called carbon dating. It was determined that it was from 600 AD. That tells us that the mound was probably built around that time. The construction probably took a number of years as each generation of leaders added to the mound.
The original shape of the mound was a rectangular pyramid designed with a large sloped ramp. The ramp led from the top of the mound to a causeway that crossed a small lagoon towards the main burial area. The mound was constructed of recycled midden material that was carried and deposited basket load by basket load until the structure was finished. The base of the mound covered an area 200 feet long and 100 feet wide. The height of the mound was about 30 feet above the midden it was built on. It was a platform that ceremonies could take place and be seen by the people watching from the commons area. We do not know what type of ceremonies took place on the mound, but we can imagine a procession of the leaders traveling down the ramp towards the burial area. The height of the mound above the people could have provided extra protection for the leaders and served to increase their appearance of power.
The main burial mound is considered a complex because it is actually composed of three parts. It has a shell and sand ring that encircles a conical shaped mound. The third part is called the platform and was constructed last. The platform is between the conical mound and the ring. All three parts have burials located in them - It is thought that the ring which is about seven feet high and the conical mound that is about 15 feet high were built at about the same time as a designed plan.
The earliest burials at the site are believed to be located in the conical mound and date back to about 250 BC. Many of the people buried in this mound had copper tools and ornaments buried with them. The copper artifacts came from the Ohio River area through a trade network developed by the Hopewell culture that existed at the time. There seemed to be indirect trading between the people that lived here and the Hopewell culture. People that were buried later did not have this type of artifacts buried with them and some burials do not contain artifacts. This tells us that over the 2,000 years that ancient people used the site, burial practices and ceremonies changed. It also tells us that trading with the northern portions of North America changed.
The shell and sand ring also contains burials some of which were placed between layers of shells while others were not. It is not clear why this occurred or whether it was related to status or just a change in the burial customs. The platform was constructed as burials filled in the gap between the ring and the cone. It is estimated that about 1,200 to 1,500 people are buried in this complex. Located near to this burial mound complex are marker stones or stele.
One of the things that makes this site different from others in eastern North America is the stele or markers stones that are found here. They are not normally found on other mound sites except in the Caribbean, South America and Central America. At this site there were at least four of these Large stones set up by the people that lived here in ancient times. When the stones were located in 1964, Dr. Bullen did small excavations around them to collect any evidence that might tell the story of how they were used. This still remains a mystery. We do know that they were erected around 440 AD. Some scientists think that they may have been used as a solar calendar to show change of seasons. The largest stele on the site has a outline of a human head and shoulders carved into one side of it. The crude carving shows that the person represented had long hair in a plume over the left shoulder. Why was that person important enough to be etched into the rock? When did he live here? What may the marker stones have been used for? Do you have any ideas? If you do, tell the Park Ranger. Your idea may be the one that helps to solve the mystery of why the stelae are at this site.
There was another large platform mound built sometime after Temple Mound "A". Archaeologists think that it was constructed before 1,200 AD. It is not really clear to us why it was constructed or exactly when. If you look at it, it looks like a stage and it even has a remnant of a ramp off the back, maybe the stage access for performers. This mound is 235 feet long and 12 feet high and is made of sand and shell. Even though this mound is much longer than Temple mound "A" and is not as high, it is called Temple Mound "H". It does have a large graded ramp similar to the one that used to be on the other Temple Mound.
The ramp leads from the top of the mound towards Stele II and lines up with the Priest mound. Does this mean something ? We are not sure. At the base of the ramp is an ancient causeway that leads to another smaller burial mound. The causeway ran along the edge of a large flat area called the "plaza".
The plaza is a large, flat, open area that is in the middle of the mounds. It was a common area that the people could gather in to watch special ceremonies on the top of Temple Mound "H". The area is large enough to hold thousands of people. It is believed that 7,000 to 10,000 people would come to the Crystal River Site each year. They probably did not all come at the same time, but for various different ceremonies. Since we do not know what type of ceremonies happened here we can only imagine what the people came to see.
Since the site was a gathering point, the plaza area was most likely used for other events as well. Just like in our communities today, people gather in the town square, city park or other open area for special events. Perhaps the people traveled for many days to meet at Crystal River to socialize, trade their goods, or attend religious ceremonies. Some of the ceremonies were related to burial of the dead. The main burial area we discussed earlier is not the only burial mound on the site.
At end of the causeway, that leads along the northern end of the Plaza, there is a low rise in the terrain. This rise was discovered to be another burial area by Dr. Bullen. When excavations were done he found that there were people buried in it. He thought that the mound was used towards the end of occupation of the site. This could not be proven because he found that burial methods had changed. He also was unable to find any items in the excavation that would be from a certain time period. If he conducted radio carbon dating, the results were not published, so we do not know when the mound was used. Recent radio carbon dates taken from the mound indicate that it may be older than Bullen originally believed.
Earlier archaeologists noticed the mound but did not pay much attention to it. One of them called it stone mound, but today there is no stone around it or on it. Could this have been the place where another Stele (now on the west side of the visitor center) was? We may never know. This is just one of the hundreds of unanswered questions that the site gives us to try and answer.