Pre-columbian Settlement


Drone-mounted lasers have revealed details of the architecture of an ancient island settlement off Florida’s Gulf coast, researchers said in a new paper published on Monday, Nov. 4, 2019.

Science | The Guardian

Drone-mounted lasers reveal ancient settlement off Florida coast
Archaeological remains date from 900 to 1200 CE

Lidar crucial to discovery: 'This technology is unbelievable'
Victoria Bekiempis


Seashells from the Gulf coast of Florida – or beads made from them – were traded as far inland as the lower midwest Photograph: Alamy
Drone-mounted lasers have revealed details of the architecture of an ancient island settlement off Florida’s Gulf coast, researchers said in a new paper published on Monday.
University of Florida archaeologists, doctoral candidate Terry E Barbour and Professor Ken Sassaman, used aerial drones with light detection and ranging (Lidar) sensors – to create detailed 3D maps of the surface of Raleigh Island.
Although archaeological objects were first spotted on the island in about 1990, and subsequent exploration of the area in 2010 revealed the presence of a settlement dating from 900 to 1200 CE, Lidar scanning revealed previously unknown architectural details.
When researchers initially tried land-based surveys to assess the settlements, they hit roadblocks because of the dense foliage. But the drone-mounted Lidar scanner used by researchers swept 16 lasers over an area, “enabling penetration through gaps” in the thick forest.
"This technology is unbelievable," Sassaman told the Guardian.
This settlement comprises 37 residential areas “enclosed by ridges of oyster shell” that are up to 12ft (4m) tall, Barbour and Sassaman said. Test excavations – digging down 3ft to assess the depth of archaeological deposits – of 10 such areas were conducted.
The researchers said there was “abundant evidence” that beads made from large marine mollusks were produced in these settlements. Stone tools to make the beads were also found there, Sassaman said.
While shell beads were not used as money, they were a form of “ritual wealth” among inland chiefdoms and social and political interactions in these chiefdoms were linked to the possession of these shells, he said.
“The discovery of possible bead production may provide information on past societies in eastern North America – and how beads were integral to social capital,” he said.
In areas that were far from the coast, such as the lower midwest, sizable sea mollusks were even imported. Chiefs of the era requested that craftspeople turn them into beads and other valuable objects, the paper said.


Shell Mound, on the Levy County side of the Lower Suwannee NWR, attracts thousands of visitors each year. Some come to fish from the pier. Others put in their kayaks and small boats at the tide-dependent launch area. Some walk the one-mile Dennis Creek Trail through marshes and hammocks. For many, the highlight of the visit is the walk on the self-guided, less than a half-mile Shell Mound archaeological trail.

Despite its unassuming name, Shell Mound (8LV42), is a large shell-bearing archaeological site that was once the location of special gatherings for Native American groups across the broader region.

The site rose to prominence as a ritual center at about A.D. 400 and continued through A.D. 650. Archaeologists refer to places such as this as “civic-ceremonial centers,” locations of both residence and ritual activity. Like other civic-ceremonial centers in the region, Shell Mound drew its significance from a nearby cemetery, the hallowed ground of ancestors from far and wide.

The site features mounds of marine shell (predominantly oyster) measuring 20 feet high surrounding a large central plaza. Excavations by archaeologists from the University of Florida have discovered the remains of large feasts that took place in the summer – likely celebrating the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year.

Today, Shell Mound is part of the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge and thus under the stewardship of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with the help of community groups such as the Friends of the Lower Suwannee Wildlife Refuges. Come tour this incredible site and learn more about Shell Mound and its inhabitants by taking the self-guided walking tour.

Friends of the Lower Suwannee and Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuges Shell Mound page and Shell Mound Guidebook

Bead-making complex off the Florida coast – Popular Archeology
Fall 2019 Issue
Daily News

Bead-making complex off the Florida coast

 Mon, Nov 4, 2019
PROCEEDINGS OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES—A study* reports the discovery of an ancient bead-making settlement on a Florida coastal island. Ancient cities in North America, including inland Midwestern cities like Cahokia, traded in marine gastropod shells and beads. Although the gastropod shells formed an important part of the economy of the second millennium CE, little is known about the coastal production of shell beads and the transport of shells inland. Terry E. Barbour, Ken Sassaman, and colleagues analyzed high-resolution LiDAR data collected by a drone on Raleigh Island, off the northern Gulf Coast of Florida, revealing a settlement composed of 37 rings of oyster shells. The walls of the residential dwelling rings reached up to 4 meters in height, and archaeological excavation of the rings found evidence of high-production beadmaking, particularly from the shell of the lightning whelk, a mollusk. Although the bead trade thrived among the chiefdoms of the Mississippian era, the Raleigh Island complex predates the chiefdoms, suggesting that it arose independently and may have been one of the early suppliers of beads for trade among chiefdoms. According to the authors, the high spatial resolution of LiDAR enabled the discovery of the Raleigh Island complex as well as detailed analysis of the site, which was important to pre-Columbian economies.
A test unit excavation within one of Raleigh Island’s 37 shell rings. Terry E. Barbour and Kenneth E. Sassaman

 Lidar image of Pre-columbian site

A 3D rendering of Raleigh Islands shell rings. Terry E. Barbour and the GatorEye Unmanned Flying Laboratory
Article Source: PNAS news release
*”Rare pre-Columbian settlement on the Florida Gulf Coast revealed through high-resolution drone LiDAR,” by Terry E. Barbour et al.