NEH grant to help Fla. Museum care for unique Calusa Indian collection

June 20th, 2007

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida Museum of Natural History archaeologists are rehabilitating the world’s largest collection of Calusa Indian artifacts and specimens, thanks to a $284,504 grant recently awarded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Calusa artifacts and specimens — from fish otoliths and Spanish glass beads to shavings left over from working with wood, shell and stone — are unique because they comprise the only large, systematic collection from a major town site of this people group.

The Calusa occupied Pineland, located west of Fort Myers on the shore of Pine Island, for 15 centuries. Florida Museum archaeologists William Marquardt and Karen Walker and hundreds of volunteers excavated the site, now part of the Florida Museum’s Randell Research Center, between 1988 and 1995. The scientists now face the challenge of conserving and preserving the more than 141,000 specimens, which they say are extremely valuable for education and research.

“Pineland’s long period of occupation and the collection’s broad range of extensively documented materials mean that even its smallest elements are in great demand by researchers,” Marquardt said.

“When we look at the larger picture and the human artifacts in the context of the human-environmental specimens, we start to see patterns that speak to us about the cultural and environmental changes that took place. It’s important to keep these materials in good condition so they can keep telling these stories and reveal new stories into the future.”

Walker said much of the collection remains unanalyzed.

“There are many possible theses and dissertations waiting to be discovered in this collection,” she said. “Its rehabilitation will greatly facilitate both its research and educational uses.”

The Calusa were once the most powerful people in South Florida until they vanished in the early 1700s. They built extensive mounds and canals, engaged in long-distance trade, collected taxes from dozens of towns and developed elaborate belief systems and arts–remarkably, without reliance on staple-crop agriculture.

Marquardt said the longevity and utility of the Calusa collection is threatened by current storage and organization methods. Researchers will rehabilitate the collection by rehousing artifacts, specimens and samples using an archival bagging and boxing method that will maintain physical order by catalog number and detailed location.

“The collection suffers from incomplete curation and a high level of past use for research and education,” Marquardt said. “In addition, the artifacts are overcrowded as a result of expansion due to intensive ceramic analyses.”

Curation is the process of caring for a scientific collection. It requires meticulous hours of conservation, preservation, repair, systematic organization and detailed record keeping.

The Florida Museum’s Calusa collection is largely comprised of artifacts, human-environmental specimens and associated archaeological records. (Artifacts, in the archaeological sense, are objects created or modified by humans.) Artifacts from the Calusa collection include Spanish-derived glass and ceramic objects; Native American pottery sherds; objects made of shell, bone and stone; and waterlogged wood, seeds and other organic materials.

Florida Museum archaeobotanist Donna Ruhl cares for hundreds of specimens collected from a waterlogged area of the Pineland site, and is experimenting with different methods of wet storage. The specimens can’t be allowed to dry due to the threat of extreme shrinking and degradation.

“The primary goal behind long-term curation is preserving the material for future research,” Ruhl said. “For example, we have to consider the potential hazards of storing wet specimens with fungicide or herbicide additives meant to prevent algal blooms, bacteria, or other microbial growth because that additive might inadvertently impact future DNA extractions or other avenues of research.”

Oxygen-free waterlogged areas of the Pineland site preserved the only known prehistoric papaya seeds to be found in North America, as well as the only prehistoric chili peppers in the eastern United States. Marquardt said the type of preservation indicated that a rise in sea level buried the seeds and kept them under water continuously. Scientists also have found bits of twisted cordage, wood and fibers that provide additional clues to how the Calusa interacted with their environment.

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The Florida Museum of Natural History is Florida’s state natural history museum, dedicated to understanding, preserving and interpreting biological diversity and cultural heritage. It is located near the intersection of Southwest 34th Street and Hull Road in the University of Florida Cultural Plaza in Gainesville. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. Butterfly Rainforest admission is $8.50 for adults ($7.50 Fla. residents) and $4.50 for children ages 3-12. Prices subject to change. For more information, including directions and parking, call (352) 846-2000, or visit www.flmnh.ufl.edu.

Sources:

Bill Marquardt: bilmarq@flmnh.ufl.edu, cell: (352) 215-2633; office: (352) 392-1721, ext. 492

Karen Walker: kwalker@flmnh.ufl.edu, (352) 392-1721, ext. 244

Donna Ruhl: ruhl@flmnh.ufl.edu, (352) 392-1721, ext. 487 and 493

Writer: DeLene Beeland
Media contact: Paul Ramey, pramey@flmnh.ufl.edu