Hearing reports of fascinating and incredibly preserved artifacts emerging from the dredged muck on Florida’s southwest coast, Frank Hamilton Cushing with the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington, D.C. led an expedition to recover these items. The expedition, which was sponsored by William Pepper of the University of Pennsylvania and philanthropist Phoebe Hearst, landed on Key Marco in 1896. Cushing and his small crew began to methodically dig in the boggy area where previous finds had been made by the landowner. They began uncovering perfectly-preserved carved and painted wood, shell, and other artifacts from a previously unknown pre-Columbian civilization Cushing called the “Key Dwellers” and who we have come to know as the Calusa Indians. These artifacts dated to the period between A.D. 500 and 1500.
The crew recovered at least twenty-three wooden face masks and carved and painted wooden animal figureheads such as the renowned Key Marco Cat. Cushing surmised that these must have been used ceremonially. “These [face masks] were found just as they had been put away…in sets, each complete, with its appropriate animal figurehead, and each evidently designed for use by a single priestly actor in the old myth-dramas,” he wrote.
The researchers found other objects made of gourds, bone, teeth, antler, and stone as well as a variety of carving tools such as shark-tooth knives. They also uncovered cordage, woven mats, ceramics, and fishing gear. While submerged in the briny muck, the artifacts remained pristine, but once exposed to the air, many disintegrated practically before the researchers’ eyes. Expedition artist and photographer Wells M. Sawyer captured many of the artifacts’ details in his beautiful watercolor paintings.
Excerpt, More in our Winter 2018 Issue of American Archaeology, Vol. 22 No. 4. Browse Contents: Winter 2018