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Marco’s claim to archeological fame is on schedule to return to the island before the end of the year. Marco Island Historical Society executive director Pat Rutledge confirmed the cat is coming back, due to make an extended visit, with an arrival date “end of November or beginning of December.”

Along with four Calusa masks, all excavated during the Frank Cushing dig of 1896, the cat, a six-inch-tall wood carving, will take up residence in specially prepared, climate-and vibration-controlled enclosure, to preserve the fragile wooden artifacts from the ravages of the elements, air and light.

Created by the early Native American inhabitants of Marco – just which group, whether the Calusa, Muspa, or Glades people is not known – the cat was probably carved somewhere between 50 and 1600 AD, and then spent over 1,000 years encased in mud and peat at the northern tip of Marco Island.

Local artist Peter Sottong has made something of a cottage industry from creating replicas of the Cat and the related Calusa masks excavated nearby. After creating a mold, painstakingly created from multiple photographs of the cat from various angles shot by Bill and Betsy Perdichizzi at the Smithshonian, where the cat has been since its excavation, Sottong and his wife Melida have cast over 1,000 of the cats, which they then hand paint to simulate the original wood finish.

Given the punishing climate of Southwest Florida, at a location just steps from the Gulf of Mexico, it is amazing to have any wooden artifacts survive at all, said Austin Bell, curator of collections at the historical museum, who has been working to prepare the exhibit where the Key Marco Cat and the masks will be displayed. He and Creative Arts Unlimited of Pinellas Park, a display design and fabrication company, are upgrading the existing Cushing-related exhibits and adding a timeline to correlate the artifacts to happenings elsewhere in the world.

“This site is so rare, to have preserved wood and plant fibers. We don’t know much about the site,” he said, and archeological techniques of the 19th century didn’t lend themselves to gleaning the amount of information expected from modern digs. Workers in the 1890s didn’t meticulously record the “stratigraphy,” noting which layer artifacts came from, thereby helping date and relate them to each other and surrounding events. “Archeology was in its infancy.”

“It’s remarkable when you think about it,” said Sottong. “The Calusa culture went from up to the Tampa area, and nearly across to Miami, and this is the only dig where anything like these was found.”

Sottong took to metal sculpture, and carving birds from wood, after a career spent in microbiology, at his home overlooking the Chesapeake Bay in Annapolis. After retiring to Southwest Florida, he became intrigued by the early Native American masks, and sought to find a technique that would allow him to make affordable reproductions.

In all, he produces 14 different masks, including stylized human faces, deer, pelicans, alligators and sea turtles. Some of the visages are not what you would want to meet in a dark alley, and all are painted in an approximation of how they would have been finished by their original creators.

Sottong said he has come to respect the artistry of the long-dead sculptor of the Key Marco Cat.

“There is a definite artistic flair. I’m copying from a rather talented person. It’s very stylized – not real cats or real people,” he said.

Archeologist Cushing described the cat as “a man-like being in the guise of a panther. Although it is barely six inches in height, its dignity of pose may fairly be termed ‘heroic,’ and its conventional lines are to the last degree masterly.’”

The MIHS has raised nearly $350,000 for improvements related to the cat’s arrival, said Rutledge. “We’re just about there – but we could still use some contributions.” She urged potential donors to call her at the Historical Society, 239-389-6447.

 “This is a very precious and important piece,” said Rutledge. “This is its home, where it was found. People are always asking ‘when will the cat be back?’ This is an important symbol to the people of Marco Island. It will bring visitors from all over the world.”

A public opening for the exhibit featuring the artifacts is scheduled for Jan. 26 at the museum, and banners on streetlights along Collier Boulevard will feature the pieces. After a two and a half-year stay on Marco, the collection is set to return to their northern homes.

If you go

Marco Island Historical Museum

180 S. Heathwood Drive

Marco Island

239-252-1440

9 a.m.-4 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday

 

 

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