Safety Harbor Mound at Philippe Park

The Safety Harbor Site is an archaeological site in Philippe Park in Safety Harbor, Florida. It is a key place to learn about the people known as Tocobaga, and Safety Harbor Culture. It includes the largest remaining temple mound in the Tampa Bay area. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.


The remaining elements of the Safety Harbor Site consist of a large temple mound, one smaller burial mound and two shell middens. The temple mound is roughly circular, 150 feet in diameter and 20 feet in height, with a summit plateau measuring about 100 by 50 feet. It is built out of a series of layers, alternating shells and sand. Archaeologists have uncovered features interpreted as post holes in the summit area, suggestive that a structure once stood there, either a residence or temple structure. There are also layers of clay, which are thought to represent levels that may have also been used in some way. The site is the southernmost in Florida that exhibits the influence of Mississippian Culture. Pottery finds share characteristics with the contemporaneous Fort Walton Culture.

Descriptions of the villages by Spanish mostly agree with archaeological reconstructions. "Capitals" had a central rectangular plaza. A truncated pyramidal mound, up to 20 feet high and up to 130 feet long on each side at the base, stood on one side of the plaza. One or more buildings stood on top of the mound, and a ramp ran from the top of the mound to the plaza. A burial mound would be located off to the side. A shell mound, or midden, ran along the shore, and other middens were sometimes located on other sides of the plaza. The plaza itself was kept clear of debris. The more important residents of the town had their houses around the plaza, while the lower class lived in huts further from the plaza. The Spanish reported that the chief and his family lived on the main mound, and that a "temple" (probably a charnel house) stood on the opposite side of the plaza. Archaeological excavations suggest that the charnel houses were on the mounds. Village sites without mounds and isolated burial mounds are also known.

As was the case in much of Florida, a vast majority of the Tampa Bay area's temple mounds, burial mounds, and middens were destroyed during development as the local population grew rapidly in the early to mid 20th century. Developers sought to level land near the water, and road construction crews found that bulldozed shell mounds made for excellent road fill. State and federal laws now afford protection to sites that contain human remains or are located on public land, but preservation of other archeological sites on private land is optional and encouraged by offering tax deductions and other incentives. The Safety Harbor Site was first brought to the attention of archaeologists as early as 1880, but the first formal excavations took place only in 1929. Twentieth-century excavations, both sanctioned and illegal, resulted in the complete excavation of a burial mound which stood nearby. The county acquired the property in 1948, and has conducted investigations into the site since then.

The Safety Harbor Culture was an archaeological culture practiced by Native Americans living on the central Gulf coast of the Florida peninsula, from about 900 CE until after 1700 AD. It is defined by the presence of Safety Harbor ceramics in burial mounds. The culture is named after the Safety Harbor Site, which is close to the center of the culture area, and is the probable location of the chief town of the Tocobaga. The culture may have developed in-place from the Manasota Culture, a Weeden Island-related Culture of the central Florida Gulf coast. Safety Harbor was influenced by the Mississippian Culture, with some ceramics resembling the Mississippian-related Fort Walton Culture and incorporating symbols of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex, but the people of the Safety Harbor Culture had not adopted an agricultural economy, and consequently, the culture did not become Mississippian. Safety Harbor mounds are generally built on late Weeden Island period mounds.

Spanish explorers of the region described the Safety Harbor Site as the "capital city" of the Tocobaga people. Safety Harbor people were organized into chiefdoms and lived primarily in villages along the shoreline of Tampa Bay and the adjacent Gulf of Mexico coast. The chiefdoms may have consisted of about 15 miles of shoreline, and extended about 20 miles inland. Each chiefdom had a principal town or "capital" with a temple mound and central plaza. Fifteen such towns have been identified along the Florida Gulf coast from southern Pasco County to northern Sarasota County, an area that includes all of the Tampa Bay area. Only one principal town has been found inland.

Four social classes were reported among the Safety Harbor people: chiefs, headmen, warriors and ordinary people, and slaves. Europeans and members of other tribes who had been captured were slaves. A chief who visited de Soto in his camp was carried there on the back of another man. Chiefs were often married to the sisters of other chiefs. The Safety Harbor people ate fish, shellfish, deer, turtles and dogs, as well as watercress, pumpkins, "cabbage" from palmettos or cabbage palms, and beans. Maize may have been a minor part of the diet, but the southern limit of maize agriculture prior to the arrival of the Europeans was to the north of Tampa Bay. They used bows and arrows, equipped with stone arrowheads or stingray stingers. Houses were built with wooden posts and covered with palm leaves. "Temples" (or charnel houses) and other buildings were decorated with wood carvings. Pottery used in daily life was largely undecorated, but ceremonial vessels (found in burials) were distinctively decorated (the defining characteristic of the Safety Harbor culture).

The name "Tocobaga" is often used to refer to all of the indigenous peoples of the Tampa Bay area during the first Spanish Colonial Period (1513-1763), but Tocobaga was most likely only the name of a chiefdom, its main town, and its chief, all of which were probably centered at the Safety Harbor Site. Other Safety Harbor chiefdoms named in Spanish accounts include Mocoso, on the east side of Tampa Bay, Pohoy (Capaloey), possibly on the north side of Hillsborough Bay, and Uzita, on the south side of Tampa Bay. The chief of Mocoso also named Neguarete and Orriygua as neighboring chiefs, but it is unsure if they were in the Safety Harbor Culture area. It is not known what these chiefdoms shared aside from the Safety Harbor culture. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda, a captive of south Florida Indians for many years in the early 16th century, described Tocobaga as "King head chief of that district", but also described Tocobaga and Mocoso as independent "Kingdoms".

The accounts of the de Soto expedition (which do not mention Tocobaga) state that Mocoso and Uzita were subject to a chief called Urriparacoxi or Paracoxi, who lived 30 leagues east or northeast of Tampa Bay. The people of Mocoso and of Uzita were noted as having spoken different languages, possibly Timucuan, but there is no proof of that. There is no mention of Mocoso or Uzita in Spanish records after the passage of the de Soto expedition. The chiefdom of Tocobaga was apparently the major power in the Tampa Bay area at the time of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés's visit in 1567.

Menéndez had made contact with the Calusa and reached an accommodation with Carlos, the Calusa "king". As Carlos was anxious to gain an advantage over his enemy, the Tocobaga, Menéndez took Carlos and 20 of his warriors to Tocobaga territory by ship. The Spanish persuaded the Tocobaga and Carlos to make peace. Several Europeans and a dozen Calusa being held as slaves were recovered. Menéndez left a garrison of 30 men at Safety Harbor to encourage the people of the town to convert to Christianity; he returned Carlos and the other Calusa to their town on Mound Key. In January 1568 boats taking supplies to the garrison at Tocobaga found the town deserted, and all of the Spanish soldiers dead. The Tocobaga's power apparently waned in the 17th century, with first the Pohoy, and then the Calusa, becoming dominant culture in the Tampa Bay area.

The Safety Harbor culture is defined by the presence of burial mounds with ceramics decorated with a distinctive set of designs and symbols. Ceramics found elsewhere at Safety Harbor sites (in middens and village living areas) are almost always undecorated. Major Safety Harbor sites had platform, or temple, mounds. The term "temple mound" is based on the description by members of the de Soto expedition of a temple on a constructed earthwork mound in a Safety Harbor village. Archaeologists, Ripley P. Bullen and Jerald Milanich, state that the temples were likely charnel houses, where bodies were prepared and stored for later burial.

A charnel house is a structure commonly seen in some Native American societies of the Eastern United States. Major examples are the Hopewell and Mississippian Cultures. These houses were used specifically for mortuary services and, although they required many more resources to build and maintain than a crypt, they were widely used. They offered privacy and shelter as well as enough workspace for mortuary proceedings. These proceedings included cremation (in the included crematorium) as well as defleshing of the body before the cremation. Once the houses had served their purpose, they were burned to the ground and covered by earth, creating a sort of burial mound.

The Tocobaga kept the bodies of recently dead people in their temples or charnel houses until the bones had been cleaned. Spanish visitors described the bodies as being wrapped in painted deer hides and stored in wooden boxes sitting on the ground. One of the Spanish captives of the Tocobaga reported that he had been assigned to guard a temple at night to keep wolves from carrying off the bodies. Garcilaso de la Vega reported that lions (cougars) would carry away bodies. After the bones had been cleaned, they would be buried. A Spanish account of a chief's funeral states that his body was "broken up" and placed in large jars, and the flesh was removed from the bones over two days. The skeleton was then reassembled and left in the temple for four days while the people fasted. At the end of the four days, all the people of the town would take the bones and place them in a burial mound. In some cases bodies were cremated and then buried in the mound on which the charnel house sat.

ADDRESS: 2525 Philippe Pkwy, Safety Harbor, FL 34695

page information credit: Pinellas County Parks, Florida Division of Historical Resources,, Wikipedia, Florida Anthropologist Journal, painting of Tocobaga by Hermann Trappman at
photos from the sources listed above, as well as publicly posted online sites with thanks to the contributors