After 20 years of research, University of South Florida archaeologist Dr. Nancy White has published a report on the history of the Pierce Mounds, on the western edge of Apalachicola, that shows the area was inhabited for more than 2000 years prior to the arrival of European explorers.
White, a professor in the university’s department of anthropology, has helped illuminate a world few imagined once existed in the heart of Franklin County.
For 2000 years, an Indian village nestled on the banks of Turtle Harbor Swamp west of Apalachicola was a center of culture commerce and religion. White’s newly published report offers insight into Franklin County’s role in the ancient world.
The mounds were named for Alton Pierce, an early owner of the site. Much of the site is now on private property and inaccessible to the public.
Once upon a time, 13 mounds, including a sizeable temple mound and a shell midden more than a mile long, shared with a bustling village the area around what is now Magnolia Cemetery
The people who lived there were prosperous and powerful, influencing trade traffic to the north along Apalachicola River and to the east and west along the Gulf Coast.
They were spared the hard work of farming by an abundance of seafood and game as well as wild fruit and nuts. There is evidence they imported cornmeal to broaden their diet. Skilled potters who produced both fanciful and utilitarian objects, they buried their dead with precious objects including silver, copper and pearls.
The settlement was founded around 500 BC. Around the same time, the Scandinavian Iron Age began, the Chinese developed the handheld trigger crossbow, and burnt brick and donkey-powered grain mills were used for the first time in Greece.
World population had reached 100 million, 15 million of whom lived in the Western Hemisphere.
“The (Pierce Mounds people) hauled soil in baskets or sacks or dragged it on hides or cloths to pile it up and build mounds,” White wrote. “They made both beautiful and plain pots, paints, points, pipes, musical instruments, and other artifacts, and used many in special ceremonies that also involved burnt offerings to accompany burial of their dead.
“Wolves, panthers, other cats, but maybe even grub worms too were among the animals they considered important for more than just food. They hunted, fished, gathered nuts, chopped down and burned trees, made canoes, played chunkey and other games,” she wrote.
At the time these first mounds were built, Greek engineers invented the catapult and the Acropolis was planned. Socrates lived and was executed for corrupting the youth of Athens. London was a collection of thatched huts boasting a wooden pier and surrounded by a mud wall.
White writes that the settlement at Turtle Harbor persisted until shortly before “the European invasion of Florida” in the 16th century. Why the Pierce Mound people left is unclear.
Treasures taken from the site are in museum collections as far away as London, along with unpublished records and drawings from early excavations. Much of White’s research on Apalachicola’s prehistory took place in libraries.
“This shows the value of the immensely difficult and complex labor of digging into unpublished field notes and maps, museum accession data, courthouse records, and other original sources,” she wrote. “ Today many think research is something done online. But there is a wealth of unpublished, dusty old paper out there with information that can greatly change or help interpretation.”
Artifacts at the British Museum were probably purchased, a common practice during the 19th century. The museum’s collection includes a clay pipe and four stone artifacts, obtained in 1869, from a dig at “Turtle Harbor near Apalachicola” and stone and shell tools and pottery, acquired in 1875, are “from mounds near Appalachicola.”
Pottery from Pierce Mounds is showcased at the Smithsonian.
An ancient tourist attraction
Just as ancient cities today hold a charm and fascination, White believes that over time, the attraction of the Pierce Mounds grew. Certainly, it was a center of commerce and drew visitors from far away but it may also have been a place for religious pilgrimages, an ancient tourist attraction.
“The earlier mounds may have become sacred places for later people to come to pray, worship ancestors known or thought to have been (buried) there, or just feel a sense of the spiritual beyond everyday life, or a sense of territory and patriotism,” White wrote.
European settlers in Apalachicola collected many artifacts, a practice that continued well into the 20th century. Indeed, on the east end of the cemetery, it appears the remains of a mound or midden is currently being bulldozed for fill, she wrote.
In 1888, H. L. Grady of Apalachicola collected artifacts that his heirs apparently donated to what would become the Florida Museum of Natural History.
C.B Moore, a well-heeled and colorful archaeologist, carried out the first organized excavation at Pierce Mounds. He published a spectacular account of the dig in 1902. Moore excavated many Native American sites in the Southeast, around the turn of the 19th century, often traveling to them in his steamboat the “Gopher” accompanied by a lifelong male companion who was his personal physician.
By the time Moore visited the site around 1898, the temple mound had been mined for fill. He described 99 burials from Mound A, including skeletons, weapons, jewelry and pottery.
In the 1940s, Gordon Willey, whose work laid the foundation for New World archaeology, visited the Pierce Mounds and performed additional excavations.
By the 1990s, Willey was retired but continued to write. Among his works was a mystery novel, “Selena,” a story in which an elderly archaeologist becomes embroiled in sexual antics and murder in a fictitious Panhandle town. White said the Pierce Mounds are featured in the story as the “Bull Mounds.”
William Sears, another archaeologist, excavated here in the 1950s, followed by Dan Penton who visited in 1972 and again in 1996.
White said Penton told her the Muscogee Indian nation still considers the Pierce site sacred and tobacco offerings are made there.
In 1975, architect Willoughby Marshall hired Robert S. Carr to examine historic sites for “Apalachicola: Economic Development through Historic Preservation.”
Carr quotes from a manuscript by local memoirist, Dwight Marshall, who said the railroad construction cut through “some of the Indian mounds near the cemetery. They dug up skeletons of Indians that were a foot taller than the average man of today and also other items of pottery. The Smithsonian Institute sent some men here on the Steamer Gopher...”
In reality, Moore was sponsored by the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia so it’s unclear how much of Marshall’s account is accurate.
Cool Springs Mound is missing
In 1994, the US Department of State tried and failed to buy part of the Pierce site, both for historical preservation and to conserve surrounding wetlands.
Shortly afterwards, a team from the Florida Department of Historical Resources’ Bureau of Archaeological Research visited the Pierce site. White and her students inspected the artifacts DHR recovered and her work on the mounds began.
She has located the sites of all but one of the 13 mounds, named Cool Springs Mound, a 7.5-foot high and 90 feet in diameter mound located as of 1902 on the western outskirts of Apalachicola. Now, it is probably in the neighborhood just east of Magnolia Cemetery.
What will happen to the Pierce Mounds is unclear. In 1974, Pierce Mounds was added to the National Register of Historic Places but the designation provides no protection.
“The beauty and monumental nature of the Pierce mounds complex remains impressive today, even with the damage to so much of the site,” White wrote. “It is crucial that Pierce be preserved as much as possible, for so many reasons, from heritage conservation to ecological issues to scientific research potential.”
Apalachicola resident George Mahr, who owns the undeveloped remains of the Pierce site, invited White to work there and supported much of her research. He hopes either to develop the land preserving the archaeological site or to sell the land for conservation purposes. He has fenced the site in an effort to preserve it but said the problem of trespassers in the area is a constant challenge.
White asked to remind everyone these mounds are a burial site and it is illegal to disturb, possess or sell human remains in Florida.
If the remains are from someone who has been dead for more than 75 years, activities at the site of a suspected grave may not resume until the state archaeologist has been notified of the unmarked burial. To notify the state archaeologist, call Daniel Seinfeld at 850-245-6301850-245-6301or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.