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Times of the Islands Magazine

Ancient Art in Southwest Florida - The Calusa left an impressive body of artwork

Oct 27, 2020 08:35PM ● By CAPT. BRIAN HOLAWAY
Ancient Art in Southwest Florida [5 Images] Click Any Image To Expand

In the spring of 1895 on Key Marco Island, J.D. Collier was digging in his garden and unearthed some wooden objects, shell tools and fiber that appeared to be ancient in origin. This began an exploration over the next year that still amazes archaeologists and people from all over the world. 

Within just a few months a young archaeologist named Frank Hamilton Cushing, who worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology, was at the Marco site collecting samples and excavating. This was a reconnaissance trip to confirm what was at this unique site and to prepare for further study. He returned to his home base in Washington D.C. and began making preparations for the next year’s expedition back to Key Marco on the unexplored Southwest Florida coast.

Called the Pepper-Hearst Expedition, its 14 members included the captain and crew of the chartered boat, the Silver Spray; John Calhoun, excavator; George Gause, foreman of the excavators; Irving Sayford, field secretary; Carl F.W. Bergmann, who helped in securing the artifacts; Frank Hamilton Cushing and his wife, Emily; and Wells Moses Sawyer, the expedition’s photographer and artist.

Shortly after arriving in Key Marco the expedition began unearthing wooden artifacts that were buried in peat and muck, which are anaerobic and can preserve wood and fiber for centuries. (Florida is said to have the most of this type of soil in the United States.)

The excavators unearthed carved wooden masks, paddles, plaques, tablets, amulets and carved shells. Dating from AD 750 to 1513, it is one of the largest collections of wooden artifacts found in the U.S.

Sawyer would prove to be a valuable member of the expedition. His original paintings done in the field captured these items as they came out of the peat still perfectly painted, before they started to fade.  

As Cushing wrote in his journal in 1896, “In the muck-filled courts of these sea villages I am finding all the arts of the original inhabitants represented with a completeness never before surpassed in such finds as those of the Cliff Dwellers.” 

Sawyer was also moved by this ancient culture and the art they crafted: “What we have found is most wonderful. No other place has been so wonderful. America, North America, the United States had once within its borders people who were the superiors in some ways of the ancient Egyptians who rivaled the first wood carvers of the world and whose works come forth from the salt sea pickle as fresh as they were when they dropped here ages ago—the wonder of the world. I am glad to be here.”

Today we know this ancient culture as the Calusa. Much has been learned about the Calusa since that 1896 Pepper-Hearst expedition. The artwork continues to intrigue scholars, students and people from all over the world, and there is still a lot to learn from these artists of centuries ago.

Capt. Brian Holaway is a Florida master naturalist and has been a Southwest Florida shelling and eco-tour guide since 1995. His boat charters visit the islands of Pine Island Sound, including Cayo Costa State Park, Cabbage Key, Pine Island and North Captiva.