The historic Mound House hosted its annual Membership Appreciation Event on Thursday evening, March 14, with Dr. Victor Thompson of the University of Georgia and the Director of the Laboratory of Archaeology presenting “Current Research at Mound Key: Provisioning the Capital of The Calusa” to roughly 50 Mound House members.
“Archaeology is a collaborative effort,” began Dr. Thompson, “with no single individual able to succeed on their own, so you need a team of specialists who can come together to understand the past. Our Mound Key group is really awesome, but no matter how great your archaeological team, it takes money and institutional backing to exchange information to preserve the past, so we appreciate the National Science Foundation and the National Geographic Society for our grant funding.”
Mound Key is just off the southeast coast of Fort Myers Beach, in the Estero Bay Aquatic Preserve, that is today Mound Key Archaeological State Park. The Calusa Indians developed the roughly 125-acre Mound Key approximately 2,000 years ago, from a flat oyster bar full of mangroves into an island roughly 30 feet above sea level. They did so through the remnants of their food, such as seafood shells and animal bones, along with artifacts from other items like pottery, that they built up into intricate combinations of trash heaps known as middens.
King Carlos & Menendez de Aviles
“By 1566, Mound Key was already the capital village of Calos, for Chief Carlos, the king of the Calusa nation that stretched from Lake Okeechobee to Charlotte Harbor to the Keys,” offered Dr. Thompson. “The Spanish then arrived and constructed the first Spanish Mission in The New World, along with a fort where the first appointed Spanish Governor, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, stationed his soldiers. Over the next three years, Mound Key was the site of frequent conflicts between the Spanish and the Calusa, who hatched at least three plots to assassinate Menendez, until he successfully coordinated the assassination of Carlos. The Calusa burnt down the Spanish town, leading Menendez to dismantle his fort and the Spanish abandoned Southwest Florida for roughly the next 100 years. This is a fantastic story that could be a blockbuster movie!”
The Calusa seemed to be the apparent victors when the Spanish left in 1569, Dr. Thompson related, “as the 16th Century Spanish did not quite have their diplomacy down. In reality, however, this was the beginning of the end of the Calusa Empire, as Spanish diseases infected the lack-of-immunity Indians, although it would take roughly another 200 years for the Calusa to eventually disappear.”
The most fascinating part of Calusa society, added Dr. Thompson, “is how they molded their lives and themselves around the estuary, without any large-scale agriculture, to support themselves. Our research is figuring out how all this works, to discover how they not only survived but thrived in a subtropical environment where nothing lasts a real long time due to the heat, because the Calusa not only had enough to guarantee their own survival but a surplus to aid the Spanish, as the Europeans could not survive on shipments from Havana. To give you a sense of the Calusa Kingdom, there were about 20,000 people in 50 to 60 communities. They were extremely powerful, with an established hierarchy, well organized and responded to threats and challenges in sophisticated ways.”
While Dr. Thompson pointed out that scholars always suspected Mound Key to be the Calusa capital, “as it was in the right place geographically, we firmly established this through excavations as well as by using laser technology to cut through the dense canopy. Mound Key is actually two distinct mounds, with several significant canal features, but we did not originally know their purpose and intent. Additional research, however, showed that by building the Mound Key grand canal and related watercourts, the Calusa as a people came together through large-scale construction projects, just as we do today, in a story of collectivism and coordinated action for the public good.”
Estero Bay teemed with wildlife, he continued, “with large populations of mammals like dolphin, manatees and especially a vast variety of small fish that were the really important part of the Calusa diet, like mullet in vast numbers. The question, however, was how do you capture this catch in large numbers, and one way was through hydrological engineering, specifically in constructing watercourts. These were large chambers at the end of Mound Key canals perfect for fish storage, with structures for drying the fish and smoking racks, and paths leading to the top of the two mounds as an easy way to move resources to the summits. This is crucial, because creating a surplus frees a culture to do a lot of other things, as if you are not comfortable with your amount of food, that is all you have to time to do, so storage techniques played a large part in the Calusa’s success story of expanding their society.”
Imagination & Luck
“It takes a little bit of imagination to come up with these hypotheses,” concluded Dr. Thompson, “and then a little bit of luck – and sometimes a lot of luck – to connect those all together, often using the smallest pieces of information, like tiny fish scales in watercourts we uncover hundreds of years later! The trick is to piece together a history of the site where no written records exist, to prove the Calusa developed a very complicated society complete with ecology, hydrology and engineering. We tend to portray them as a people who just lived off the landscape, but they were in reality very sophisticated. Our work is still on-going, to try to figure all of this out.”
This brought Dr. Thompson “all the way back to the beginning of my presentation, as it takes a dedicated team of researchers, as there are many different kinds of evidence and remains to sift through and profile. No one is an expert on everything, so it takes a research team working cooperatively and collectively to discover the past, just as the Calusa had to come together cooperatively and collectively to produce their society!”
The Mound House, Estero Island’s oldest standing structure now owned by the Town of Fort Myers Beach and operated as a museum complex, sits atop a Calusa Indian mound at 451 Connecticut, Fort Myers Beach. Several educational and entertaining programs are offered each week. The Mound House is open Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. through April 27. Beginning April 28, the museum is open Tuesdays, Wednesdays & Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For a full schedule and admission prices see www.moundhouse.org.
The Friends of the Mound House support the educational mission of the Mound House. Membership opportunities for the Mound House and the Friends of the Mound House begin at $35. For details visit the Gift Shop at the Mound House or www.moundhouse.org.
The finale of the 2018-19 Mound House Lecture Series will be Tuesday, April 9, with Andrew West, FMB resident and photographer extraordinaire. Advance registration required with a $5 entry fee; Social Half-Hour with refreshments at 5:30 p.m., and the lecture at 6 p.m. The Mound House is at 451 Connecticut Street, with additional parking at 216 Connecticut; for lecture reservations or additional information, call 239-765-0865 or see www.moundhouse.org.
By Gary Mooney
Caption: Dr. Victor Thompson presented “Current Research at Mound Key” at the Mound House Membership Appreciation Event. Photo by Gary Mooney.