Network of Ancient Canals in Florida

The Ortona Mounds site in the Lake Okeechobee region of Florida features a network of canals for canoe travel:

The casual visitor to this small rural community about 15 miles west of Lake Okeechobee might barely notice the broad indentations that run for seven miles from a cluster of oak-shaded mounds through scrub pine and palmetto to the Caloosahatchee River.

But to archaeologists they are monuments to prodigious engineering skill and hard work — canals that enabled Indians to travel between Lake Okeechobee and the Gulf of Mexico.

Around A.D. 250, Indians inhabiting this area began digging the canals by hand, using wooden and shell tools to create waterways 20 feet wide and 3 to 4 feet deep, said Robert Carr, the Florida archaeologist who directs excavations at the site.

Their goal was not to drain or irrigate land, Mr. Carr said, but to create a waterway to bring dugout canoes to their village, a mile north of the Caloosahatchee. The canals also allowed paddlers to bypass rapids roiling the river.

The two-square-mile village at the center of this watery network was a planner’s dream, with sculptured earthworks (one of them resembling a crescent moon holding a star) and mounds, ponds and geometric causeways. Eventually, the people, known today as the Ortona, added a 450-foot-long pond, shaped like a ceremonial baton and surrounded by a beach they made with white sand.

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