Cultural resources

District helps protect Florida’s rich history

By Ed Garland

Florida is oftentimes stereotyped as a place without a history, a sun-blanched haven for a transient population escaping the brutal grip of northern winters or tourists seeking the latest theme park thrill.

Truth is, Florida is drenched in a history whose remnants include 14,000-year-old Native American sites and vestiges of early European settlements. Study the Spanish influence along the huddled structures and cobbled alleyways of St. Augustine and you’ll begin to realize that the Sunshine State boasts a rich cultural history dating back millennia.

It’s not surprising that Florida’s earliest inhabitants subsisted near waterways like the St. Johns River, where wildlife, shellfish and other aquatic life were abundant. The Florida Division of Historical Resources (DHR) lists more than 1,500 cultural resource sites along the 310-mile river in its Florida Master Site File, and that doesn’t include unreported sites. Along and in the St. Johns River are prehistoric mounds, missions, plantations and forts.

To that end, there are roughly 400 significant cultural sites on the 600,000 acres of land owned by the St. Johns River Water Management District. Collectively, the sites tell the story of Florida over the course of several thousand years.

Historic photograph of a native American mound near Melrose, FL.

A turn-of-the-century photograph shows a native American mound near Melrose, FL. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources)

District land managers are stewards of public lands and strive to protect and preserve not only the land’s natural resources but also any known cultural resources, as well…

Dr. Ann Shortelle, Executive Director

“We find new archeological sites each year,” says J.B. Miller, who recently retired from the district as a land resource specialist and cultural resources guru for the agency. “In the last five or 10 years, we’ve recorded new midden sites, a cemetery and historical structures such as an old well. Our land managers keep their eyes open for these historical places.”

The most significant resources on district lands perhaps are mounds or middens containing human remains at the southern end of the district in Indian River County. Dotting the shoreline of the upper St. Johns River are smaller middens containing little more than sherds of pottery and broken shells — the garbage piles of antiquity.

“All the different bumps in the landscape are middens that have different meanings,” Miller says. “Not all mounds are burial mounds. Some might have been ceremonial; others, people may have lived on their peaks.”

“District land managers are stewards of public lands and strive to protect and preserve not only the land’s natural resources but also any known cultural resources, as well,” says St. Johns River Water Management District Executive Director Dr. Ann Shortelle.

“We work closely with the Department of State’s Florida Division of Historical Resources to ensure the integrity of cultural resources on district properties,” Shortelle says.

Several staff members have received Archaeological Resource Management (ARM) training to assist state land managers with management of the state’s irreplaceable archaeological resources, which include pre-European mound sites, villages and camps, colonial settlements, battlefields and submerged sites. ARM training is available to those who work on state lands, including the water management districts, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), Florida Forest Service, and Florida Park Service staff.

Cultural resource training not only helps district staff identify potential sites, but can potentially prevent the accidental destruction of a site.

“We don’t want anyone building a camp site or cutting a fire line through the forest and impacting a cultural site in the process,” Miller says.

Technology can inadvertently aid in the discovery of new cultural resource sites when staff are mapping district land. LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure distances to the Earth), can measure a substantial bump in the ground that might be a midden, Miller says.

Despite the district’s best efforts to protect the sanctity of archeological sites, there’s always the chance that looters could disturb a location or worse yet, steal artifacts. Fortunately, state law exempts agencies from public records laws regarding cultural resources. In other words, the district is exempt from sharing detailed information about cultural sites. DHR grants permission to conduct archaeological investigations on state-owned lands. Digging for artifacts on state lands without a permit from DHR is a third-degree felony. In addition, the district works closely with the public and law enforcement agencies, most notably FWC, to monitor sites.

Toombstone for James K. Shaw

An 1882 headstone is among cultural resources that have been documented on district lands. (Photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources)

“Recently, FWC officers caught a looter on a district property because one of our land managers noticed suspicious activity. “In this case, we were remotely monitoring activity on the property,” Miller says. “Protecting these sites is serious business. If, for example, you dig holes into a pre-historic site, you destroy the vertical integrity of the mound. You lose significant scientific value. You also lose four to five thousand years of history.”

Note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 (April 2018) edition of the district’s StreamLines publication.