The Crystal River site on the Gulf Coast of Florida has been called enigmatic for decades due to the puzzling artifacts and architecture found at the site. From the site design featuring rectangular, flat-topped pyramids with associated plazas, (the first of their kind in the Southeastern U.S.,) to carved stone stelae like those of the Maya, researchers have long noted its similarity to sites in Mexico of the same time period.
Archaeologist Edward V. McMichael noted multiple traits were shared between artifacts from the Crystal River site and sites in Veracruz, Mexico including panpipes, ear flares, pottery forms and decorative techniques. In his 1964 paper, “Veracruz, Crystal River Complex, Hopewellian Climax,” he concluded:
“About A.D. 1 or shortly before, the Mexican State of Veracruz contributes a complex of cultural traits to the northwest coast of Florida which inspires the Crystal River Complex….As to the mode of transmission, a seagoing mechanism seems most likely since there is no evidence for Crystal River Complex traits intervening between northern Veracruz and the northwest coast of Florida….”
Upon the discovery of multiple stone stelae at the Crystal River site, archaeologist Ripley Bullen concurred and stated in his 1966 article “Stelae at the Crystal River Site, Florida“:
“The stelae, their spatial relationships, and the ceremonial deposits are evidence of influences from southeastern Mexico.”
To the above evidence, I add the possibility that Mayan glyphs and religious symbols appear both on pottery and the landscape (i.e., geoglyphs) at the Crystal River site further supporting McMichael’s hypothesis.
Vessel No. 1 from the Crystal River site is a highly decorated pot with designs inscribed on both the sides of the vessel as well as the bottom.
Archaeologist Clarence B. Moore noted in his 1903 paper, “Mound Near the Shell-Heap, Crystal River, Citrus County” that a design on the bottom of the vessel featured a cross-shaped symbol with four circles, each within one of the four quadrants of the cross.
Among the Maya, this exact symbol can be found and is interpreted as the Lamat glyph. Scholar Susan Milbrath in her book Star Gods of the Maya notes:
“It has a cruciform design surrounded by four doughnut-like circles….Thompson identifies Lamat, the eighth day in the Maya calendar, as the sign for the planet Venus”(Milbrath, p.187).
One version of the Mayan Lamat glyph can be seen in the book, A Catalog of Maya Hieroglyphics by J. Eric Thompson:
Other versions of the glyph can be found in the book, An Introduction to the Study of the Maya Hieroglyphs by Sylvanus Griswold Morley:
This glyph has associations with abundance and fertility as well as death and rebirth. It also has associations with the Feathered Serpent deity known as Quetzalcoatl to the Mexicans and Kukulkan to the Maya:
“The Maya word ‘lamat’ is associated with abundance, ripeness, fertility and growth. The glyph itself is the Mayan symbol for the planet Venus. The Maya linked the cycle of the planet Venus with death and rebirth (Venus appears as the Evening Star, disappears, then reappears as the Morning Star)…
In other legends, Quetzalcoatl is portrayed as a fallen spiritual leader who dies in flames and is reborn as the planet Venus, thus also symbolizing the continual process of death and rebirth, constant regeneration…” <https://mayanmajix.com/1mma_6_26_17.html>
Another symbol on this same pot appears to have similar associations of life and death:
The sides of the pot feature a repetitive ‘teardrop’ design. In the Maya world, this design is identical to an actual flint knife. Flint knives also have associations with life (surgery, food preparation) and death (human sacrifice).
The fact that this pot was found in a burial context at the Crystal River site is quite fitting with its Mayan spiritual associations with life, death, and rebirth and further supports this interpretation.
Two pottery fragments from the Crystal River site appear to represent the Mayan Ek glyph. Ek means “star” in Mayan and also has associations with Venus. For instance, Venus was known as Chac Ek which translates as “Great Star.”
|Crystal River Zoned Red pottery fragment with w-shaped design||Crystal River Incised pottery fragment with w-shaped design|
These w-shaped designs on pottery from Crystal River are strikingly similar to the w-shaped design of the Mayan Ek glyph:
Another pot from the Crystal River site features a spiral symbol. It is a style of pottery known as negative painted pottery. Archaeologists have noted that this style of pottery decoration was quite common in Mesoamerica but completely absent in the Southeastern U.S. until it “exploded” on the scene at the Crystal River site.
This exact spiral symbol was associated with the god Kukulkan/Quetzalcoatl throughout Mesoamerica:
This image from the Tovar Codex shows an image of Quetzalcoatl with the spiral symbol on his shield. As noted previously, Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan also had an association with Venus and its associated life/death/rebirth symbolism. In the paper, “A Study of Mesoamerican Religious Symbolism,” researchers noted that this spiral symbol likely originated from seashells:
“the original form of the spiral was derived from a transversal cut of a marine shell, as shown in Figure 3. An association with Quetzalcoatl seems likely, since as Ehecatl (his representation as the god of wind who breathes life into man) he is seen with [this symbol] completely covering his cape.”
Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan also was sometimes depicted wearing a seashell ornament called the “Wind Jewel.” It was, as noted above, ” a transversal cut of a marine shell” revealing the internal spiral structure of the shell. The Wind Jewel was believed to be the source of all air. (This is likely due to the sound of rushing air produced when a seashell is placed over one’s ear.)
A Wind Jewel ornament and fragments of wind jewel ornaments were also unearthed at the Crystal River site in the burial mound:
One researcher in her Master’s Thesis entitled “The Hopewellian Influence at Crystal River, Florida: Testing the Marine Shell Artifact Production Hypothesis” noted that these Wind Jewels, which she referred to as “spire fragments,” were the most common type of “debris” at the site:
“The most common type of debris encountered in this assemblage was spire fragments, usually along the upper shoulder just before the apex (Figure 13), or, in one particular case, the whole spire had been detached from the rest of the shell (Figure 14)”
This researcher also noted:
“Bullen uncovered several spire fragments in burials, mostly from larger gastropods such as lightning whelks…Yet it is interesting that missing spires are consistent in the crown conchs as well… In fact, almost half of the unmodified surface finds are classified as mostly whole conchs with missing spires. Spire fragments seen in previous assemblages of Moore and Bullen in addition to consistent missing spires uncovered in recent surface finds further indicates either a weak point in the shell or a commonly used reduction sequence for intentionally removing the spire.” (pp. 70-73)
Again, this researcher found evidence that the spire was being removed intentionally from shells as part of a manufacturing process (i.e., “commonly used reduction sequence” in academic-speak.) The fact that this was the most common type of debris found at Crystal River suggests it was a location where such jewelry was manufactured. The surface debris was likely the rejects that didn’t pass final inspection. The ones found in burials show this symbol had significant religious importance. So many were found in these burials that archaeologist Clarence B. Moore noted in his 1907 research paper, “Crystal River Revisited,” that shell pendants were “much in vogue.”
Archaeologists also found other jewelry created from the columella (the central spiral core of the seashell) buried with their owners in the large burial mound at the Crystal River site as well as shell drinking cups.
Thus at the Crystal River site, we find not only pottery painted with the spiral glyph or symbol for Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan but also the Wind Jewel ornament from which the spiral symbol likely originated.
There’s one other possible Mayan glyph at the Crystal River site. Yet this glyph isn’t painted or engraved onto a piece of pottery. Instead, this glyph is constructed on the landscape of the site.
Mound H is a rectangular, T-shaped, flat-topped pyramid mound on the eastern side of the site. According to archaeologists:
“(Mound H) anchors a plaza that is bordered by two burial complexes, one discrete (Mound G) and other comprised of several interrelated parts (Mounds C-F). The latter was the source of most of the Hopewellian artifacts recovered by Moore (1903, 1907, 1918).” (Pluckhahn, p.22, “The Temporality of shell-bearing landscapes at Crystal River, Florida”)
Not only is this one of the first (if not the first) flat-topped pyramid mounds ever constructed in the Southeastern U.S., it is also the only one ever constructed in this particular shape. It is unique in the U.S.
Archaeologists have also noted it’s the first with an associated plaza, as they noted in their book New Histories of Village Life at Crystal River:
“Mound H and the plaza appear to 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.” (p. 139)
This platform mound was not alone. Two others were built at the same time giving the village a decidedly “Mesoamerican” feel to it. The fact that the Crystal River site was built on land surrounded by a reed-filled marsh also contributes to this feeling since the Maya and others in Mesoamerica referred to their cities by the euphemism, “Place of Reeds.”
Archaeologists who studied the site 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 constucted in relatively short order. Why this seemingly new form of architecture, and at this historical juncture?” (p.138)
Mound H is identical in shape to the Mayan Ik glyph. In the Mayan language, Ik means “wind, air, breath of life, spirit.” Thus, like the aforementioned Wind Jewel, it has associations with the wind-aspect of Quetzalcoatl/Kukulkan as well as having spiritual associations of life, death, and spirit/soul.
Interestingly, a cache of unmodified crown conch shells was found buried inside this mound. Given these seashells’ previously mentioned association with wind and air, this provides further evidence that Mound H was purposefully constructed in the shape of the Mayan Ik glyph.
Archaeologists noted in their paper, “Toward a New View of History and Process at Crystal River,” that the builders of this mound enlarged it several times but were very careful to maintain the overall shape of the mound:
“The [ground penetrating radar] data suggest that each time Mound H was expanded, it retained the same basic shape and proportions. This is a significant new insight…it indicates continuity in the conception of this mound, and perhaps its use.” (Thompson, p.177)
This suggests that this particular shape was very important to its builders. If they were purposefully trying to create a geoglyph in the shape of the Mayan Ik glyph with its associations with “breath of life” and “spirit’ then this would make sense. Considering that the Crystal River Site originated as a ceremonial site featuring two large burial mounds with hundreds or thousands of burials on either side of this T-shaped mound, could Mound H have been a place where bodies were prepared for burial and ceremonies performed for their journey into the afterlife? Were these pots with their “rebirth” symbolism to accompany the dead in the hopes they would help their owner be reborn?
One researcher noted in the paper, “A Study of Mesoamerican Religious Symbolism:”
“The phrase often repeated in the Mesoamerican chronicles, ‘. . . to perish in order to be born, ‘ was one of the principal concepts in the Maya and Nahuatl religions. The basis of this concept, according to Paul Westheim, was the firm belief that men contained ‘vital energy,’ which is indestructible and independent of time, space, or matter. ‘The old men used to say,’ explained Friar Sahagun, ‘that when men died they didn’t perish, but they once again began to live. . . They turned into spirits or gods.'”
Mound H is by far the most “Mayan” looking mound at the site. It is reminiscent of temple pyramids at Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, although at a much smaller scale. In fact, the rectangular temples of Palenque such as the one atop the Temple of the Inscriptions would not look out of place atop Crystal River’s Mound H.
Archaeologists have noted there were small limestone blocks detected in the mound fill of Mound H although at this time they do not believe it was part of a structure or foundation of a structure. The current belief is that the flat top of the mound served as a stage for public rituals viewed from the plaza that fronts the mound. But further investigations could, of course, change this view.
The archaeologists who studied the site later went on to dismiss McMichael’s Mesoamerican-Origin hypothesis that these changes derived from Mexico but instead likely came from the nearby site of Mandeville in Georgia:
“Mounds A, H, and K were probably not the earliest such features in the region; at a minimum, the platform mounds at Mandeville (in southwestern Gerogia)….would seem to date slightly earlier…There is relatively good evidence of contact between Crystal River and Mandeville in the form of the sharing of rare negative-painted and incised ceramics…so we don’t dismiss the possibility that the idea of building platform mounds was borrowed from elsewhere. But it is probably safe to rule out McMichael’s idea that Cyrstal River was a waypoint for Mesoamerican travelers…” (p.139)
(Yet even the site of Mandeville has clear evidence of a Mayan connection.)
A second possible geoglyph is the Main Burial Complex itself. This was actually the first structure constructed at the Crystal River site and predates the flat-topped pyramid mounds by perhaps a couple of centuries.
It consists of a central sand burial mound (Mound F) surrounded by a low circular embankment of sand (Mound C). It forms a symbol known as a circled dot or circumpunct. This symbol is a known star symbol in Mesoamerica and North America. It can be seen as a repetitive design in the headband of the Mesoamerican deity known as Tlaloc. Tlaloc has associations with Venus as can be seen with the upside down Mayan Ek glyph forming the eyes, nose, and eyebrows of Tlaloc’s face.
It is within the central mound, Mound F, where the burials were found with Mayan glyph designs on pottery. As noted before, these glyphs were associated with Venus and its associations with death and rebirth. Mesoamericans also believed that stars were where the souls went after death and that falling stars were the souls of the dead returning to Earth. Thus it seems fitting the dead were buried in a mound complex shaped like a circumpunct or star symbol.
Mayan Descending God
In addition to these possible Mayan glyphs, there is another connection to Mayan religious beliefs to be found on Crystal River’s pottery. One pottery fragment shows a bird diving towards the rising sun. The bird has a four-pointed star symbol on its back likely meant to represent Venus.
The Maya had a similar entity referred to as the Diving God. Usually depicted as a man diving towards the ground, the man was also sometimes depicted wearing a bird costume.
According to researchers:
“The Descending or Diving God of the Maya is truly unique. This god is depicted upside down, hence its name…The god can be found at four archeological sites, but seen primarily at the trading port site of Tulum on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. The other three sites are Cobá, Sayil, and Chichen Itzá and are also located on the Yucatán Peninsula…”
It seems this Mayan god was particularly favored by traders operating coastal seaports. These researchers also noted that there was a temple dedicated to this god at the trading port of Tulum. Every year on the Spring equinox the rising sun would shine through the doorway of the temple and illuminate a sculpture of the god. Thus this god was apparently related to the rising sun.
The Mayan Diving God was also associated with Venus. In the Dresden Codex the god is shown with his head replaced with the Lamat glyph, the symbol for Venus.
The Crystal River Descending Bird deity seems to have all the same associations as the Mayan Descending God: a bird deity diving towards the sunrise carrying a Venus symbol. Like the Mayan trading port of Tulum, the Crystal River site was undoubtedly a trading port based on all the exotic goods found in the graves at the site. Trade goods from as far north as Ohio have been found in the burial mound at Crystal River. Seashells from Crystal River have been found hundreds of miles inland.
Mexican Glyphs on Crystal River Pottery?
In addition to the aforementioned Mayan glyphs, there appear to be two glyphs of Mexican origin on one particular pot.
The u-shaped glyph appears to depict the Mexican glyph called xochitl which means “flower.” Interestingly, the top of the pot appears to have a flower petal design around the opening which supports the idea this pot has an association with flowers.
Even today we provide flowers to the deceased as a sign of renewed life. Thus it’s not hard to see how a flower glyph would relate to the idea of life, death and rebirth.
The second design on this pot has the appearance of the tecpatl glyph which means “flint.” As stated earlier, flint knives have associations with life (food preparation, surgery) and death (human sacrifice). Thus again we see the ideas of life and death expressed on pottery at the Crystal River site.
Interestingly, there was only one group of Maya who was known for their seafaring capabilities: the Putun/Poton Maya. They were known as the Chontal Maya and the Maritime Maya. Additionally, they were also referred to as “Mexicanized” Maya because they blended many Mexican traits, including language, with their Mayan culture. Thus these combinations of Mayan and Mexican glyphs help unravel the mystery of who built the Crystal River site. It was likely none other than the Poton Maya.
As noted in the book Maya History & Religion, in Mexico the Poton Maya lived in a province named Acala. Another branch of this group was called the Yokot’an. Coincidentally, when the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto traveled through Florida in the 1530s he encountered a province by the name of Ocale´ (namesake of the modern town of Ocala, Florida.) This province was immediately due east of the Crystal River site. The first town he found in this province was named Uqueten (Yokot’an?) and the next town he found was named Potano:
“[They] arrived at the first town of Ocale´, which was called Uqueten…there they had found abundance [of corn]…The next day they went to Potano…” (The DeSoto Chronicles, Vol. 1, pp. 261-262)
Thus we have a province of Ocala with people called Poton and Yokot’an living in both Mexico and Florida. And it just so happens to be the one group of people who were actually capable of making such a journey from Mexico to Florida.
Furthermore, due east of Ocala is the large lake known as Lake George. In the 1560s Spanish explorers said the tribe that lived around the southern portion of this lake was named Mayaca.
Perhaps the closest parallels for the stepped- pyramids of shell at Roberts Island may be found in prehispanic sites of the Yucatan. Ensor (2003) noted the presence of a number of multi-level shell mounds at the Isla de los Cerros complex, located in the Mexican state of Tabasco and dating to the Late Classic-Epiclassic/Early Postclassic period. These mounds were around the same size as the mounds at Roberts Island; some were larger at the base, but none were as tall as Mound A at Roberts Island.
All the above evidence points to the conclusion that the Crystal River site was a Mayan-influenced site settled by Putun/Poton traders from Mexico who brought with them religious ideas associated with the Feathered Serpent deity. In 250 AD when Crystal River was founded, the Mayan civilization was experiencing explosive growth. Some of the largest cities on Earth with populations over 100,000 people were being constructed in the jungles of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Cities like El Mirador, Palenque, Tikal, Copan among others. Recent LIDAR scans of the area have discovered there were millions more people living in these areas than previously thought. A similar building frenzy was going on in Central Mexico with the megacities of Teotihuacan and Cholula. This would have been a boom time to be a trader. The competition for local resources in Mexico was likely fierce so this forced traders to look far and wide for opportunities. We know the Poton Maya were navigating as far south as Panama. We also know they reached into the Caribbean to Cuba and as far away as Antigua. Florida would have been an easy hop from Cuba. Even today people make the journey from Cuba to Florida on homemade rafts to escape the Communist regime there. Some have even made it to the Yucatan in Mexico.
Since no Mayan artifacts have been found in the Southeastern U.S. this suggests the relationship was likely exploitative. Mexico with its mega-cities was like a modern, first-world country. The Southeastern U.S. with its village-based tribes living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was like a modern third world country. And like today, first world countries exploit the natural resources of third world countries without giving much in return. This was likely the situation between the Poton Maya traders and the local tribes in the Southeastern U.S.
Native American legends throughout the Southeast are full of stories that the people who built and lived atop the mounds were foreign people speaking an unknown language and that these people ruled over them. They even claim the foreigners were able to maintain this rule because they controlled access to the burial grounds and thus their ancestors. Crystal River may have been one such place but only more research will help reveal the true nature of what was going on back then.