Thursday, October 14, 2004


Hurricanes reveal new Indian sites

By Rachel Harris, Staff Writer

To the untrained eye it is junk, two mountainous heaps of fish bones and shells that should be chucked with the tree limbs and fence debris left by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne. Which is precisely the problem: This trash is an archaeologist's treasure.

"Middens are some of the only things we have left that show how the Ais Indians lived," said Robin Hicks-Connors, president of the Historical Society of Martin County.

But some archeologists fear that careless cleanup crews on Hutchinson Island — or another big storm — could destroy what is left of two middens unearthed by the hurricanes.

Packed with charred fish bones, chipped clay pottery and shells, the mounds are veritable landfills left by the Ais Indians, who lived along the Florida coast from about 1000 B.C. until the 18th century, when they were wiped out by European diseases and battles with settlers.

Records kept by the Spanish, along with the 17th-century journal of shipwreck survivor Jonathan Dickinson, provide only a glimpse of the Indians' life: They settled in clans and were hunters and fishermen who carved boats out of tree trunks, said Lucille Rights-Murtough, a board member of the Southeast Florida Archaeological Society.

Most clues of the Ais' life in Martin and St. Lucie counties lie in the 150 known middens and burial mounds scattered along the coast.

The two most recently discovered middens had appeared to be only sand dunes. Then Frances sliced them open, exposing a wall of artifacts atop a slab of Anastasia rock. Jeanne swept away even more sand, scattering stone tools and pottery shards along the beaches.

Linda Geary, keeper of the Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge — at the southern end of Hutchinson Island, where both Frances and Jeanne made landfall — followed a trail of artifacts to discover one midden under an oceanfront mansion a few miles south of the museum.

Bob Carr, executive director of the Davie-based Archaeological and Historical Conservancy, found the second midden about a mile north of the House of Refuge during a post-Frances assessment of beaches.

"We're not finished, so there could be even more middens along the Treasure Coast that we don't know about yet," Carr said. That makes him all the more eager to canvass the beaches quickly, pinpointing archaeological sites before another storm washes them away.

"With Jeanne, we saw that 15 to 20 feet of one site had been destroyed," he said. "That was thousands of artifacts, just washed out to sea."

Other known middens and mounds in the area survived without major damage, Carr said. A burial mound at Old Fort Park, in Fort Pierce, remained intact, covered by a blanket of trees.

But now the sites face a new threat: bulldozers, plows and front-end loaders.

"We really learned from the Hurricane Andrew cleanup that you can't just put a bulldozer blade down and push trees," Carr said. "You have to move more gingerly."

For the latest cleanup effort he is working closely with county and city governments, advising them to use cranes to pluck branches from burial mounds and chain saws to cut trees before dragging them across archaeological sites.

Carr also is looking to protect the oceanside middens from the next storm. He is urging state and local leaders to renourish beaches, dumping more sand on middens so they can survive erosion, or protecting the middens with a layer of stones.

"It's irretrievable what happens with these storms," Carr said.

And with each midden lost, he said, the memory of the Ais fades even more.

Bob Shanley/The Palm Beach Post
Linda Geary, keeper of the Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge,
holds a shell from a midden uncovered after Hurricane
Frances stripped a sand dune. Jeanne swept away some

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