Crystal River Archaeological State Park



art by Hermann Trappman

About 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 family’s 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 saltwater 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 settled fisher-folk and by about 2,500 years ago, 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.

Since there are no historical accounts from this period, we have no way of knowing what the people called themselves. We only know about them from what they left behind, such as the mounds, their burials, and their grave goods. Instead of a tribal name, archaeologists refer to them as a Weedon Island culture. This means that their cultural practices (such as mound building and how they buried their dead) and artifact types (pottery, arrow points, jewelry) are similar to other peoples on the Central Gulf Coast of Florida during this same period (200 A.D. to 800 A.D.). However, the site was also occupied from the Deptford Period through Santa Rosa-Swift Creek Culture and up to the Late Fort Walton Period. This timespan makes it one of the longest continually occupied sites in Florida, believed to have been occupied for more than 1,600 years without abandonment.

The original inhabitants would have chosen this location primarily because it was next to a river that was close to the sea. This would have provided easy access to food (fish and shellfish), cooling sea breezes and ease of transport (canoe). The Gulf of Mexico provided a conduit for contact. Canoe travel along the Gulf provided items for trade and an exchange of ideas across a wide area. It is possible that the idea for the temple mounds of Florida originated from the similar mound structures built throughout eastern North America.  The river routes, via the Gulf of Mexico would have been used for trading with northern tribes, principally the Hopewell Culture located in the Ohio River area. Copper items found in the Crystal River site would have originated from the area of the Ohio River near the Great Lakes.

Archaeologists can’t be sure which came first, the long-distance exchange of goods, or of ideas. These exchanges contributed to the development of intricate, regional sacred rituals that were repeated for generations, indicating that the peoples of the Crystal River site were developing more complex societies. They were making choices that elevated certain places, and probably certain people, above others. The burial practices identified at Crystal River are also similar to those found at other mound sites in the Southeast and the Midwest. This is evidence of a belief system that was shared across a wide geographic area. Elaborate grave goods, some of which are fashioned from materials, such as copper, not native to Florida, are further evidence of exchange networks that extended as far as Ohio and Illinois.

The site contains burial mounds, temple/platform mounds, a plaza area, and a substantial midden. It is estimated that about 1,200 to 1,500 people were buried in this complex.

The earliest burials at the site are believed to be located in the conical mound and date back to about 250 B.C.. Many of the people interred in this mound had copper tools and ornaments buried with them. The copper artifacts came from the Ohio River Valley through a trade network developed by the Hopewell Culture that existed at the time. There seemed to be indirect trading between the people who lived here and the Hopewell. People that were buried later did not have this type of artifacts with them and some burials do not contain artifacts. This tells us that over the 2,000 years ancient people used the site, burial practices and ceremonies changed. It also tells us that trading with the northern portions of North America changed.

A 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. Along the Gulf Coast, the Deptford Culture continued the seasonal existence throughout the Middle Woodland Period. Settlements in this geographical area lacked permanence of occupation, although the cultures here participated in the Hopewellian trading network to a limited extent and constructed numerous low sand burial mounds. These sand burial mounds along coastal Florida are believed to represent local lineage burial grounds rather than the resting place of an elite individual.

Today, trash builds up in our homes and workplaces through our daily living. Leftover foods, bottles, cans, paper, broken dishes, and construction and manufacturing debris that we no longer want or can use are disposed of. For us, we have a garbage truck that will take the trash to the local landfill for disposal or perhaps to a local recycling center. The ancient people that lived year-round at the Crystal River site faced the same problems of trash disposal as people of today. 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 modern 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 1,600 - 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 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. 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 to ten 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. Archaeologists call one Mound "J", the Village Mound, and the other is called "K", the Priest Mound.

In the late 1800s and through the mid 1900s, most of the middens and mounds in Florida were completely removed or reduced in size for building material. The southeast side of the Crystal River midden mound was removed for use as road fill in the 1960's. It was only after Ripley P. Bullen surveyed and reported on the site, that destruction was halted. At its height of use, the large midden at Crystal River would have stretched from southeast of Mound A all the way to northwest of Mound J.

Persons with authority or wealth like to place themselves above the general population to reinforce their status. Temple mounds in prehistory are believed to have been built for that purpose. The largest and highest platform at the Crystal River site, Temple Mound A, 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 and sand, 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 Ripley P. Bullen, who took it for carbon dating. It was determined that it was from 600 AD. That tells us that the mound was probably built around that time. Temple Mound A is one of the most recognizable and photographed of the mounds at Crystal River State Archaeological Park.

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 where 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.

There was another large platform mound built sometime after Temple Mound A, but constructed before 1,200 AD. It looks like a stage and 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. This mound is much longer than Temple Mound A and is not as high, it is called Temple Mound H.

At the base of the ramp from Temple Mound H, is an ancient causeway that leads to another smaller burial mound. The causeway ran along the edge of a large flat area in the middle of the mounds, called the "plaza". It was a common area where villagers could gather and 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 events. 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.

Located near to the central burial complex are carved marker stones called "stela". Stelae are often found in Caribbean, South or Central American sites; it is unusual to find them in North America. At this site there were at least four of these large stone stela set up by the people who lived here in ancient times. When the stones were located in 1964, 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 they were erected around 440 AD. Some scientists think they may have been used as a solar calendar to show change of seasons. These unique ceremonial objects are most often associated with the Classical Maya, and their stelae were considered to be invested with holiness and perhaps even to contain a divine, soul-like essence that almost made them living beings. The largest stela on the Crystal River site has a outline of a human head and shoulders carved into one side of it. The crude carving shows the person represented had long hair in a plume over the left shoulder. 

A primary reason for this Florida State Park site is to preserve and interpret the mound structures, burial areas and the lifeways of the coastal dwellers who used the area in ancient times. Interpretive exhibits explore the chronology of archaeological excavations which occurred at the site beginning in 1903. The visitor center museum contains exhibits displaying artifacts related to the site, and provides a few comparisons with what was occurring in other parts of the world during similar time periods.



3400 N. Museum Point Crystal River, FL 34428
PHONE: (352) 795-3817
HOURS: 8:00 a.m. until sundown, 365 days a year. The Museum is open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Thursday - Monday closed on Tuesday and Wednesday.

page information credit: Florida State Parks, Florida Museum of Natural History, Florida Department of Historical Resources, Wikipedia, and previous Trail website content
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors