Hurricane Irma might have unearthed Calusa artifacts in Marco Island preserve
Archaeologists are sifting through the root balls of trees downed by Hurricane Irma, looking for Calusa Indian artifacts at the Otter Mound Preserve on Marco Island. Eric Staats / Naples Daily News
Hurricane Irma is giving a team of archaeologists a one-time chance to look into the past.
Irma, which made landfall Sept. 10 on Marco Island, left behind piles of debris, flooded streets and wrecked homes all over Southwest Florida, tearing apart vulnerable lives that are still not back to normal.
But as some hurricane victims look to the future, archaeologists have their eyes on what they think could be unearthed pieces of an ancient Calusa Indian past in the root balls of downed trees at the Otter Mound Preserve on Marco.
"If there is a silver lining, it's that we get this opportunity to collect and document important pieces of Marco Island history," said Austin Bell, Marco Island Historical Society curator.
So-called "heritage scouts" — they think of themselves as first responders for historic preservation — with the Florida Public Archaeology Network first noticed the potential artifacts at Otter Mound as they made their rounds of historic sites after Irma.
Conservation Collier, which created the 2-acre preserve in 2004, suspended its post-storm cleanup of the wrecked preserve until archaeologists could have a closer look.
On Wednesday, Bell and archaeologists Rachael Kangas and Sara Ayers-Rigsby crouched over the tangled, upturned roots of gumbo limbo and royal poinciana trees.
They used their fingers to sort through the dark dirt, hunting for pieces of shell, fish bones, shark vertebrae, pottery and, from more modern settlers, colored glass.
A complex and widespread Calusa culture built settlements along the Collier County coastline as long as 2,500 years ago and lived on the richness of the region's estuaries.
Archaeologists were at Conservation Collier's Otter Mound Preserve on Marco Island to collect Calusa Indian artifacts unearthed in the root balls of trees toppled by Hurricane Irma on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017. Naples Daily News
The mound had been a place to toss out shells of oyster and conch they used for food and sometimes built into tools.
"If your lunch comes out of a plastic container, this is basically a plastic container for the Calusa," Kangas said, showing off a crusty lightning whelk shell.
Otter Mound's history and the pieces of history below its surface are not only ancient. Records show that Marco pioneer James Barfield sold what is now Otter Mound in 1919 to a New Yorker who came to what was then known as Caxambas to work in a clam cannery.
Ernest Otter, the preserve's namesake who bought the land in 1950, is thought to have built a 1,700-foot-long shell wall as part of a terraced garden using shells left by the Calusa.
Carbon dating found shells in the wall dating 700 to 900 years old, Conservation Collier coordinator Alex Sulecki said.
For the Calusa, shells often were turned into tools such as fishing net weights, hammers or saws.
"This is basically what you'd use to cut down a tree before you could buy an ax from Home Depot," Kangas said.
Kangas acknowledged the difficulty in determining in the field whether a shell's telltale holes and notches mean it was part of a tool or is just a broken piece of nature.
Still, the artifact hunters filled zip-close bags with finds from beneath 20 toppled trees. Each tree had identifying pink tape and was numbered and mapped.
Ayers-Rigsby used a black Sharpie to label each bag with numbers and letters that would indicate where its contents were collected and by whom.
Bell, with the historical society, plans to clean and curate the pieces of the past, further analyze them, and eventually put some of them on display at the Marco Island Historical Museum.