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Austin Bell, curator of collections at the Marco Island Historical Society, talks about the importance of the return of the Key Marco artifacts. Alex Driehaus, Naples Daily News

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The Key Marco Cat has come home. The carved wooden creature, regarded as one of the best pre-Columbian artifacts in North America, will share its considerable cachet with the island where it was found as the star of the Marco Island Historical Museum for the next 2½ years.

Even before the grand opening of a multiple museum exhibition centered around the cat planned for Saturday, Jan. 26,, a line to visit the prehistoric feline statue snaked around stanchions in the room built for it. A week into its show, the cat has propelled the museum to second spot among reasons to visit the island.

Six school buses of children had been there. Tours are booked up nearly through the end of visitor season. Banners celebrating the cat's arrival hang from light posts in the city.

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"Trip Advisor already says the museum is now the No. 2 reason why people come to Marco Island," said Alan Sandlin, former Marco Island Historical Society president who chaired the building committee to build the museum. "That little 6-inch piece of carving is changing how people view not only Marco Island but all of Collier County."

What visitors see through bullet-proof glass is a sable-hued wooden figure, seated on its heels like a human, its front paws rested firmly on its haunches, as if listening to a story. Or perhaps watching history unfold around it.

With its tail snaking all the way up its back, the polished piece looks as if it could have been carved last week. More intricately detailed than many artifacts, it has unpupiled eyes, which create a disarming Orphan Annie look. At barely half a foot, the Key Marco Cat is close to the size of a cellphone power pack.

More Marco archaeological  finds return

It is not coming home alone. Three other artifacts from the same dig — a mask, a shell painting and a wooden figure's head — are being lent by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Florida Museum of Natural History, where they are housed. It will be the first time all four objects will be back together since 1896, when archaeologist Frank Hamilton Cushing and his crew unearthed them.

Marco's dense oxygen-free muck had preserved them, although colors and materials of the other objects began to deteriorate as soon as air and light hit them, said Austin Bell, curator of collections for the Marco museum.

Cushing had cleverly brought along an artist, Wells Sawyer, to depict what was being found. Copies of his drawings depicting their bright colors are at the museum, as are the timelines of the history behind the artifacts. 

The Marco museum devoted more than $350,000 to installing and protecting an exhibition that rivals those of major museums:

  • A reconstruction of Frank Hamilton Cushing's desk, complete with one of his letters around the expedition.
  • Narratives on all the key players around the archaeological expedition to Marco in 1896. 
  • Artwork, recently colorized by their original artist, that bring the Native American cultures and the encroaching Spanish settlers to life.
  • Music composed by flutist Kat Epple that suggests the sounds of life that Marco's indigenous people may have heard.
  • Souvenirs, from history books and artifact reproductions to ephemera such Key Marco Cat mugs and magnets.
  • A computer game that lets participants "dig" for archaeological finds. For children, there are coloring sheets, and the museum has encouraged them to add their artwork to the walls.

The last is a reminder that artifacts are being found on Marco to this day. Contractors still find shards of pottery and tools that the museum has reconstructed by experts. Among them: a Spanish "swivel" gun, known as a verso, that could be turned for multidirectional shooting, and an old Spanish coin, its inscriptions still intact. 

There's no meow from the Marco cat

Yet for all the prestige it brings, the cat keeps much of itself a mystery. "It's most likely modeled after the Florida panther, but we don't know," Bell conceded. 

No one can even say for certainty that it is a Calusa worship object, Bell continued.  Another Native American group, the Muspa, coexisted with the Calusa for a time before mysteriously fading away. 

"It could have been in a collection that passed to the Calusa," he said. To try to carbon date it the museum would have to remove a chunk of it. Further, the kinds of chemicals these artifacts were exposed to in the early 20th century could throw off the dating process, he said. 

Still, that mysterious little figure figuratively built the walls around it.

When the Key Marco cat first returned to the island in 2000 from the Smithsonian Institute, it had to be displayed in the vault of the Citizens Community Bank (now a Fifth-Third bank office). It was not the sort of home Marco islanders wanted for their best known native.

Visitors — some from miles away, some from states away — lined up to see the 500- to 1,500-year-old statue. Its significance is that it has survived so well despite being wood, a substance considered perishable in the world of archaeology and anthropology. The whole experience inspired the Marco Island Historical Society to raise money for the island's own historical museum.

"We knew we had historical significance on Marco that matched anywhere in North America and that the story was not being told," Sandlin recalled.

It included the poured concrete vault and bulletproof glass that house the cat today.

"By the time we started delving into it we realized it was a world-class event," he said. 

"It's almost haunting," said Pat Rutledge, museum director, of the artifacts in the exhibition. "When you think of how long ago these were being used, when you know that mask at one time was being held up to someone's face for a ceremony here, it gives you goosebumps."

"It's not only educational but excitingly entertaining," Sandlin said. 

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