Early archaeology in Florida

By Dr. Jerald T. Milanich

Maps of important archaeological sites in the southeastern United States always include Mt. Royal on the St. Johns River and Crystal River on the Gulf coast. Both were first excavated nearly a century or more ago, and the extraordinary collections from each have drawn attention ever since.

The significance of these sites certainly rests in large part on the array of artifacts recovered. In addition, the first excavations at each were carried out at a time when American archaeology was still in its infancy, and major excavations made major impacts. Just as important is that the artifacts and data regarding the contexts of those collections have been preserved. Fleeting archaeological fame derives from discoveries; everlasting fame is awarded only those discoveries that are published and curated.

Mt. Royal and Crystal River both were first investigated by Philadelphia archaeologist Clarence B. Moore, who promptly published what he found, providing excellent illustrations (he also paid publication costs!). The artifacts he collected as well as his original field notes still exist today, providing modern researchers informed access to the collections and their intrinsic data. At the Huntington Free Library in the Bronx, New York, one can read Moore’s field journals. One also can visit the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian to study his excavated collections.

Born in Philadelphia in 1852 and educated at Harvard (B.A. 1873), Moore was never formally trained as an archaeologist. During the 1870s and 1880s he lived the life of a bon vivant, funded by family money. He traveled widely in Central and South America and Europe, made an around-the-world trip, and went on an African safari. In 1879 Moore returned to Philadelphia to take up the presidency of a paper company; 20 years later at age 47 he retired to devote full time to archaeology.

Perhaps his global excursions had piqued his interest in archaeology. In 1891, then near 40, he had first traveled up the St. Johns River, excavating shell middens. Two years later he began excavation of mounds on the same river, an enterprise that eventually took him to hundreds of other mounds in Florida and throughout the Southeast.

During his nearly three decades in archaeology Moore’s field procedures remained much the same. Prior to each season contacts were made with local people to locate suitable mounds for investigation and secure permissions to excavate. When necessary, land owners were paid. A steamboat—one of which was the Gopher—would precede Moore to the field and anchor in the river next to the mound to be excavated. When Moore arrived from Philadelphia in January, the start of the yearly field season, he took up residence on the boat, a crew of local laborers was hired, and excavations commenced. When one mound was demolished the boat and crew moved to the next. Each field season continued well into spring, sometimes into early summer, when Moore would head back to Philadelphia to analyze his collections, write and publish reports, and prepare for the next season.

In reading Moore’s field notebooks I found no great secrets or new information, though I developed more respect for him as an archaeologist. In the field he coped with many of the same problems and phenomena that we do today, especially bad weather and the unforeseen. His daily logs meticulously record time, temperature, and, later, barometric pressure. A typical entry, this one from 1893 at Mt. Royal, reads: “Wed April 12. 6 am. 65° clear, 11:30 am 82° brighter—6 p.m. 80° clear. Lay all day [anchored] at Mt. Royal.” At the onset of his second season of work (1906) at Crystal River, his January 25th entry reads, “Reached Crystal River this evening from the north and went aboard the Gopher which lay a short distance below the town.” The field season was set to start, but the next day he ran up against the unexpected: “Spent all day at anchor near Crystal River having decided it was impossible to secure labor for the mound on a day when the circus was in town.”

Like modern archaeologists, Moore kept a tally of expenses. In 1894, for working a six-day week, each of 12 crewmembers received $5.10.

Archaeologists have a peculiar love-hate relationship with Moore. We love him for all the information he left us, but we hate him for digging all those sites before the modern era of archaeology brought new field methods that would have greatly enhanced his reports. Even so, Moore did do many of the same things we do today. He was aware of the work of other archaeologists, and he did not hesitate to call on those colleagues and other specialists for information or analyses beyond his own abilities. He read the literature and sought similarities between his sites and artifacts and those investigated by others, freely sharing his information. Moore also understood principles of stratigraphy and he looked for depositional patterns within sites.

But he was not perfect. He worked too fast and tried to do too much. His three field seasons at Crystal River (March 11-23, 1903; January 29-February 14, 1906; and April 9-12, 1918) spanned 34 days. Because he did not work on Sundays probably only 25 days total were spent excavating. During that short time he and his field crews recovered the skeletal remains of at least 429 individuals and hundreds of pottery vessels and other artifacts. Doing so much with a crew of twelve (or even one twice that size) in so short a time would be impossible utilizing modern standards of excavation. Moore’s crews must have literally ripped things out of the ground. No grid system was used and valuable vertical and horizontal measurements were not recorded. Nor were field drawings made.

Would we have been better off if Moore had not dug Mt. Royal, Crystal River, and other sites? Certainly it would have been better if the sites were excavated by today’s exacting standards. But the hard reality is that had Moore not dug the sites and recorded what he did, much information would have been lost. Vandals seeking artifacts for their mantle places would probably have destroyed many of the sites, forever losing the data they represent.

That is why long-term projects like the ARPP are so important. They produce new information and they assure the collected data is available forever.

Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from Famous Florida Sites: Mt. Royal and Crystal River , by Jerald T. Milanich, published by University Press of Florida, Gainesville, 1999.