2013-04-04 / Top News

Historical society digs into Marco Island’s ancient past

BY EVAN WILLIAMS


Volunteers pitched in for a Big Sift session earlier this year on Marco Island, searching through piles of midden for evidence of the Calusa Indians’ life on the island thousands of years ago. 
COURTESY PHOTO Volunteers pitched in for a Big Sift session earlier this year on Marco Island, searching through piles of midden for evidence of the Calusa Indians’ life on the island thousands of years ago. COURTESY PHOTO Alongside professional archaeologists, volunteers will sift through midden — mounds of crushed shell and other remnants — at a Marco Island archaeological site starting Sunday, April 7. The ensuing five-day dig is part of The Big Sift, an effort by the city and the Marco Island Historical Society to glean physical evidence of the island’s original Calusa Indian inhabitants who arrived more than 6,000 years ago.

Volunteers are needed to help in the Caxambas area of the southeast corner of Marco, at Addison and Leo courts. Anyone old enough to do some “dirty work” is welcome to join The Big Sift from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily through Thursday, April 11.

Workers will use screens to sift through material that some 1,000 years ago was part of a Calusa village, including what was at the time a dumping ground, Kathy Miracco, the society’s archive director, says.

Since then, one people’s trash has been transformed into another people’s rich cultural treasure. Besides evidence of the Calusa’s artistic and tool-making prowess on the site, remnants of their diet remain as well: the fossilized bones of fish, turtle, raccoon, deer, sharks, rodents and other things. There is still much left to be discovered, Ms. Miracco says.

“Finding more ornamental things made from shell is very exciting to us,” Ms. Miracco says. “Something that they wore in their wonderful festivals — things that might help us understand them.

“The ideal thing would be to find another Marco Cat,” she adds, referring to a 6-inch-tall wooden sculpture found preserved in airless muck in a famous 1896 dig on Key Marco, what is now Old Marco. “It’s not very often you find wooden artifacts in a prehistoric site. We kid about looking for the second Marco Cat … we know that’s not going to happen.”

The Key Marco Cat is at the Smithsonian. The Marco Island Historical Museum has had it on loan and is interested in having it returned to Marco permanently, a move that would require the museum to gain official museum accreditation.


These artifacts were uncovered during previous sifting of shell midden deposits from a Calusa village uncovered in the Caxambas area of Marco Island. The midden contained a mixture of pottery, animal carcasses, shell tools, arrowheads and harpoon spears made from shell. Volunteers are needed to help with the next sift April 7-11. These artifacts were uncovered during previous sifting of shell midden deposits from a Calusa village uncovered in the Caxambas area of Marco Island. The midden contained a mixture of pottery, animal carcasses, shell tools, arrowheads and harpoon spears made from shell. Volunteers are needed to help with the next sift April 7-11. In the meantime, finds from The Big Sift will be displayed at the museum

The Big Sift is part of a plan by the Marco Island Historical Society to study the Caxambas area as a vein of Calusa history. Partly funded by the city, the study began more than a year ago when workers assessed the site’s historic value. So far, digs have uncovered Calusa pottery and shell tools dating back 250 to 2,700 years.

The MIHS has spent about $30,000 on the study, which is directed by Joseph Mankowski, president of the Fort Lauderdale based firm Advanced Archeology Inc.

Marco Island resident Gene Erjavec, field director for Advanced Archeology, will supervise the next round of sifting. For more than a decade, Mr. Erjavec, an archaeologist and history enthusiast, was hired by the city of Marco Island to monitor any digging it had to do for sewer installation and similar kinds of projects. He helped make sure sensitive areas were protected so history could be uncovered 200, 300, 1,000 years later.

“I just didn’t want to see it slip into the cracks,” he says. ¦

The Big Sift

>> What: Volunteers needed to help sift piles
of shell midden in search of artifacts from
the Calusa Indians.
>> When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday-Thursday,
April 7-11
>> Where: In the Caxambas area of Marco
Island at Addison and Leo courts
>> To volunteer: Call Gene Erjavec at 777-
5272.
>> More info: Call the Marco Island Historical
Society at 389-6447 or visit www.TheMIHS.
org.

Return to top