|Dr. Sassaman Describes the Calm Waters of the St. Johns River|
(Photo Credit: Genna Perry)
Thursday, August 11, 2016
Exploring the Archaeology of the St. Johns River
Hi everybody! This is Maureen, a student here at Fort St. Joseph, writing again to give you all a recap of our most recent lecture in our series hosted at the Niles District Library. Those of you who visited our open house last weekend probably noticed that our 2016 theme was “Rivers and Waterways.” Our speaker, Dr. Kenneth Sassaman, an archaeologist from the University of Florida, had plenty to relate to this topic as his specialty is studying the hunter-gather groups along the St. Johns River in North-East Florida. This river differs from the St. Joseph River in that is it slow-moving and low gradient (carrying virtually no sediment). Yet, we can understand the ancient humans of the past in both areas by studying the environment.
From 9,000-7,000 years ago, the Indigenous peoples of the St. Johns area buried their dead in freshwater ponds and staked the bodies down to keep them fully submerged. To this day, the peat has preserved the ancient bodies so well that their brains are still intact. During this period, the shoreline extended much more into the Gulf of Mexico. As time wore on, the native peoples had their home transformed as the Clovis period dwindled and the shoreline shrank dramatically. In response, shell mounds were created 7,000 years ago.
These mounds are made up of shell, varied in shape (conical, loaf, ridges, etc.) and size (one was even as large as 3 football fields). The layers of shell vary by taxa and occasionally include artifacts as well as human remains. Not all shell mounds were used for burials, other proposed purposes include being used as a place of elevation or used as ritual gathering areas. Layers of pond muck were used in some shell mounds, as would have been a very difficult process, Dr. Sassaman believes that this task was done deliberately.
We also learned that groups who lived in the St. Johns area expanded their social connections from 5,500 - 4,500 years ago. Shell beads from the area were manufactured for more than just local consumption and actually began showing up in Tennessee burials. In addition, two individuals from this time period examined from the burial shell mounds at the St. Johns site were found (after having tested their molars) to have originated from Virginia.
Jumping ahead to more recent history, the shell mounds faced a sadder fate in the 1920’s-70’s as many were decimated through mining. Luckily in 2001, Dr. Sassaman began working through the University of Florida at the St. Johns River site and later moved to the Silver Glen site in 2007. He plans to continue his work in the area for many years to come.
That’s all for now, stay tuned for updates as the 2016 field season comes to a close.