Crystal River Mounds (150 BC)

The Crystal River site is located on the Central Gulf Coast of Florida near the Three Sisters Springs. These springs are the source of the Crystal River and the reason for its name. It is likely the Crystal River site was chosen precisely due to its location near these springs.

The site features at least three, flat-topped pyramid mounds, a large plaza, two burial mounds, and three erect standing stones referred to as stelae. The site is full of firsts. The flat-topped pyramid mounds are the first such architectural features in Florida and perhaps the entire Southeastern U.S. The mound-and-plaza site plan is the earliest such site plan north of Mexico. A T-shaped flat-topped pyramid mound (Mound H) is unique in the U.S. Its construction method, being made mostly of limestone rocks, is rare in the southeastern U.S. and the first in Florida. The three standing stone stelae, one carved with a human face, are also unique and the only such objects north of Mexico.

The central burial mound (Mound F) is surrounded by a circular embankment of sand (Mound C), which also housed burials. The two structures form what archaeologists call the Main Burial Complex. Exotic artifacts unearthed from the central burial mound showed a trade connection with the Hopewell civilization of Ohio. The Crystal River site was the southernmost site with such exotic Hopewell artifacts.

Another burial mound at the site (Mound G) showed no such exotic artifacts. This difference in grave goods suggests one burial mound was for the elites and the other for commoners.

Some of these elite goods included jewelry such as ear flares made from copper, (some overlaid with silver and meteoric iron), which helps paint a picture of how the elites of the site adorned themselves. Copper pan pipes, a type of musical instrument, were also unearthed from these elite burials. This helps us imagine what the site must have sounded like when these instruments were played.

The site was not built all at once and what we see today is the end result of centuries of work. It appears the burial mounds were constructed first and then years later the village with its flat-topped pyramid mounds commenced construction. This suggests the site began as a ceremonial site associated with funeral rites and later grew into a village.

Ceremonial Center

The first structure at the Crystal River site was a circular embankment of sand. Multiple burials were found in this embankment. Two of the oldest burials suggest the individuals were buried sometime between 2049 BC – 899 BC. Pottery vessels with small feet (tetrapodal vessels) were found in the earliest burials, which supports these early dates since these vessels were known from other sites of a similar age. Plummets– decorative jewelry used to adorn clothing– were found with another burial.

The River Styx and Fort Center sites are the closest other locations in Florida to feature such a circular structure.

At some point, a conical, flat-topped burial mound was built in the center of the circular embankment. It was constructed over a long period of time. The aforementioned exotic Hopewell grave goods were found in the lower parts of this mound while later burials in the upper part of the mound showed no such grave goods. Radiocarbon dates retrieved from the upper part of the mound (i.e., the youngest part) show it was constructed sometime between 723  BC – 4 AD. No dates were retrieved for the older, lower part of the mound but clearly they would date before 723 BC. This suggests this burial mound was likely constructed at the same time as the encircling sand embankment. If so it would create a symbol known as a circled-dot or circumpunct. The circumpunct was a known star symbol among later Native Americans in the Southeastern U.S. These natives believed the souls of the dead resided in stars and that falling stars were the souls of the dead returning to Earth. Creating a burial mound in the shape of a star symbol would be consistent with these beliefs. Thus this mound complex formed a geoglyph, a symbol constructed on the landscape.

Similar conical burial mounds with circular enclosures were constructed in Ohio among the Adena culture during this same time period. Since grave goods made of marine shell were unearthed from these Adena mounds it is known they had trade contacts with Florida. The Adena culture is believed to have evolved into the Hopewell culture. Since Hopewell artifacts were found in Crystal River’s burial mound it seems Crystal River had an extended relationship with natives from the Ohio region.

Construction on a second burial mound was initiated between 80 BC – 125 AD. Few grave goods were recovered from this mound and none were of the exotic Hopewell type. This suggests this mound was reserved for non-elite or commoners.

Researchers have noted for the Adena and Hopewell societies with which the Crystal River site was connected through trade,

 “most individuals never made it to burial mounds. We don’t know where or how these individuals were disposed of in death, but we can assume that their bodies were scattered ‘in dispersed and isolating circumstances that may be difficult to identify archaeologically today….it took deliberate actions of agents or teams to deploy some of their dead or their transformed remains in contrived archaeological contexts.’”(p.99)

Archaeologists who studied the site noted:

“By the first century A.D., if not earlier, the still vacant ceremonial center at Crystal River had developed a complexity unparalleled among its peers, with one burial mound surrounded by an encircling embankment, and another singular burial mound across an apparent plaza…we see the elaboration of mortuary construction at Crystal River as an indication that ceremonies here were attracting more, and more varied, people.” (p.98)

They concluded:

“To summarize, Crystal River emerged as a center for ceremony in the last millennium B.C., perhaps as early as 1000 B.C. but certainly by the last few centuries B.C….People from the surrounding area apparently came together at certain times of the year to bury their dead in the circular embankment and Mound F….it seems clear that theindividuals who were buried with the plummets, copper plates, and other finery—or perhaps the people who buried them—enjoyed a higher status than those who were buried without such objects…[T]he apparent emphasis on ritual parapherinalia and animalimagery suggests that high status may have been tied primarily to religious leadership…” (p.99-100)

Even at this stage Crystal River was like nothing else in Florida:

“Crystal River, with its circular embankment and burial mound, was emerging as the paramount center for ceremony in thelocal area. In scale and elaboration, it already exceeded other cermonial centers on the pininsular Gulf coast. Its closest peers were at the Yent and Pierce sites in the Florida Panhandle, and the Mandeville site in the interior of the Chattahoochee River Valley of southwestern Georgia, where we see similarly elaborate mounds and comparable quantities of exotic Hopewell artifacts. There was no doubt competition between these centers and their respective leaders for access toexotic goods, and in attracting people.” (p.100)

Village Life Emerges

Sometime around 125 A.D. a village began forming at the Crystal River site. Research suggests there were likely ten round or oval houses located in an arc along the riverfront with a population of around sixty people. At its beginnings, the village was likely inhabited only seasonally during the winter months. They primarily focused on gathering marine resources like fish and shellfish. They disposed of this shell on site, which resulted in a six-feet-deep midden in the village area.

Over time the occupation became more permanent and year round. The residents began exploiting more terrestrial food sources like deer. Evidence from pottery fragments suggests these residents were from two distinct communities. One group created pottery with sand tempering and another group with limestone tempering. Since limestone was available at the site, the group who created limestone-tempered pottery are thought to have been local and the other group was from further away. These two groups appear to have buried their dead in the separate burial mounds with the limestone group using Mound G and the sand group using Mound F.

Researchers concluded:

“the social divisions that were evident in the earliest burials at Crystal River appear to carry though to the first phase of village life. Interment in the Main Burial Complex was probably reserved for people of higher status, as marked by the deposit of exotic ceramics and marine shell. Status may have been reinforced by the maintenance of separate burial facilities on opposing sides of the plaza.” (p.112)

The exotic artifacts that were earlier buried in Mound F started to fade. Archaeologists noted:

“The differences in burial goods in Mound F also demonstrate a shift in the nature of interaction and, by extension, perhaps in the way higher-status goods were procured or earned. The copper and quartz artifacts found in earlier burials suggest connections to Hopewellian centers to the north, not only to sites along the Gulf Coast but likely farther afield to sites like Tunnacunnhee and Leake in northern Georgia, and perhaps as far as the classic Hopewell communities in the Midwest. The unusual physical properties of these commodities and the distance they traveled to reach Crystal River suggest that these connections were important to the achievement of positions of status or skill, probably in many cases as religious specialists, as we noted in the previous chapter. In contrast, the apparently greater frequency of marine shell and ceramics in the later burials of Mound F suggests a contraction of interaction to the Gulf Coast and adjacent interior regions of the Southeast.” (pp.112-113)

Evidence suggests they also ate different foods. The elite seemed to eat more deer and dolphin. The other group ate more sea turtle.

The population increased and the village expanded again starting between 238 AD- 292 AD. The village midden area expanded and grew taller. The residents now lived at the site year round. Sites such as Mandeville in Georgia were abandoned by 300 AD. The Hopewell Interaction Sphere was collapsing at this time as well. Yet activity at the Crystal River site seems to have intensified. A new pottery tradition appeared in Florida known as Weeden Island pottery. Fragments of this type of pottery began to be buried in Mound E in the Main Burial Complex during this time. Yet it does not appear in the other burial mound, Mound G.

The three large, flat-topped pyramid mounds, A,K &H were also constructed at this time. Mound K likely started as a low earthen mound then expanded with shell to its current size. Mound H also started as a low earthen mound then expanded with layers of yellow and white sand, then a darker layer of sand followed by several feet of oyster shell. Limestone boulders would eventually be used to raise the height of the mound to its present form.  Mound A was constructed from alternating layers of sil and shell and finally capped with a dense layer of shell.

The archaeologists noted:

“Crystal River is, to our knowledge,,the only Middle Woodland site in North America for which there is radiocarbon evidence for the construction of at least three platform mounds during the Middle Woodland period. It is all the more striking that these mounds seem to have been constructed in relatively short order. Why this seemingly new form of architecture, and at this historical juncture?” (p.138)

The archaeologists noted there was no evidence of structures on Mounds H and K. They also noted:

“…with the construction of Mounds H and K to the north and south (respectively), [theplaza] was now muchmore clearly defined. Mound H and the plaza appear to have been functionally linked, as evidenced by the ramp that leads from the summit of the mound. This might be the earliest definitive evidence for a platform mound-plaza arrangement north of Mexico…The plaza was further defined by a causeway that linked Mounds G and H.” (p.139-140)

Another researcher noted:

“…one area in the southern portion of the plaza is notable for higher concentrations of artifacts, as well as for soil chemistry signatures suggestive of burning. Perhaps the new fire ceremony was in place for some time in the Southeast….”(pp.140-141)

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[[[[[[Still another example of Woodland period archeological sites is the Crystal River Mounds found in northwestern Florida. The Crystal River mounds consist of two larger temple mound structures, a small mound used for residential purposes, as well as several burial mounds (Florida). The Crystal River mound complex is approximately 14 acres and dates variously from 200BC to approximately 1300 or 1400AD (Milanich).

The Crystal River Mounds have been found to contain various pottery artifacts and the burial mounds, as other mounds in pre-Columbian archeological sites within Florida, contain artifacts that were not sourced locally, such as Grizzly Bear teeth, mica from the Appalachian Mountain area to the north of Florida, and copper earrings from the Ohio area. The primary burial mound consists of white sand and is said to contain, by some estimates, as many as a 1,000 separate burials (Milanich). The Crystal River mound complex also contains two stone objects estimated to date to 440-450AD and whose purpose is not definitively known. These stone objects are about five feet in height and are fashioned out of limestone and one is carved to be representative of a human head (Milanich). Some archeologists have hypothesized that the entire complex is a massive calendar to mark the major planetary events such as equinoxes, solstices, and star alignments (Milanich).]]]]]]]

Gary C. Daniels

Gary C. Daniels is an award-winning, Emmy-nominated television, video and multimedia writer and producer. He has a passion for history, archaeology, and astronomy. He is the founder and publisher of LostWorlds.org.

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