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A green and blue LiDAR image showing subtle differences in elevation caused by the presence of a historic factory
Information icon An image captured by laser imagery depicts shell rings at Raleigh Island on the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. Ten centuries ago, the island was the site of a bead-making operation. Photo by Ken Sassaman, the University of Florida.

A refuge gives up its secret

Researchers discover bead-making operation at Lower Suwannee NWR

Today, it is the Lower Suwannee National Wildlife Refuge, but long-ago it was a factory where natural resources became treasures. Native Americans transformed the shells of lightning whelks into products in demand far beyond the shores where they were made.

Working in what is now western Florida, craftsmen turned those shells into beads. By the time Europeans arrived at those Gulf coast flatlands about 500 years ago, the bead-making operation had been operating for centuries.

This history was all but lost until researchers from the University of Florida’s Department of Anthropology and Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab, using a drone equipped with state-of-the-art imaging equipment, discovered the settlement on one of the refuge’s islands. Assisting in the search: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), which manages and operates the 55,000-plus-acre refuge. It’s located about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, Florida.

“This is just a glimpse of something incredibly unique,” said Richard Kanaski, a Service archaeologist whose region encompasses the Southeastern United States. “We’re getting a huge amount of information from this.”

Information gleaned with Light Detection and Ranging, or LiDAR. It’s a system that uses pulses of light to measure variable distances. Placed on a drone, the imaging system can reveal land forms obscured by foliage, water or other visual obstructions.

When a drone passed over Raleigh Island, on the southern tip of the refuge, the visual evidence it collected left archaeologists wide-eyed and excited: a complex that once contained four clusters of at least 37 shell rings encircling living and work spaces. Ridges of oyster shells, some 12 feet high, formed the encompassing rings.

Archaeological teams from the University of Florida excavated in 10 of the residential areas. They found extensive evidence of a large-scale shell-bead production dating between 900 and 1,200 years ago. This was during the mound-building Mississippian culture that flourished in what is now the Midwestern, Eastern and Southeastern United States.

An archaeologist excavates a rectangular pit in a forest
A team comprising University of Florida and Service officials discovered ample evidence of a bead-making culture. In the foreground, Terry Barbour, a Ph.D. student at the university, carefully brushes away soil at a dig site. Photo by Ken Sassaman, the University of Florida.

In the settlement’s heyday, the bead-workers did it all: collected raw goods, turned them into a product, then traded with other cultures. Beads from that period have been found as far away as the Midwest.

All this, 10 centuries ago.

The site, Kanaski said, also hints at how people adapted to climate change and altered sea levels — issues that resonate today.

“This,” said Kanaski, “is an incredible site.”

The researchers’ findings pleased Andrew Gude, the refuge’s manager. When he came to Lower Suwannee, in 2011, he effectively rolled out a welcome mat to the university’s researchers.

“We encouraged them to make the refuge a natural laboratory,” he said. “And they took advantage of it.”

Officials had known for years that Raleigh Island, comprising about 30 acres, was significant. Florida state officials recorded the site in an archaeological index in 1991, but included few details as to what lay under the sandy tract’s vines and brush.

“We knew something was out there, but we didn’t know what,” said Ken Sassaman, a University of Florida anthropology professor who is one of the authors on a report detailing the settlement. He first saw Raleigh Island in 2009 from the deck of an airboat that passed by the marshy site.

It took an oil spill — Deepwater Horizon in April 2010 — to reveal the island’s secret.

Some response money from that disaster was set aside to document pre-spill conditions of known archaeological sites along the Gulf coast, from Texas to the Florida Keys. That brought a small archaeological team, led by Sassaman and Kanaski, to the island. The team encountered heavy undergrowth, downed trees and more. It was slow going.

All that changed last year.

Equipped with the light-imaging system, the team’s drone mapped the island’s complex, sprawling site. The machine’s findings underscored what the state’s archaeological records had noted in 1991 and in subsequent years: There were archaeological sites on the island — but no one dreamed of something so extensive.

A recent article written by the university and the Service offers an assessment that contrasts with the typical dry, guarded language of academics. The ancient settlement, the report notes, is “without parallel in the Southeastern United States.”

Sassaman, who helped write the report, was no less enthusiastic when he recalled seeing the imagery for the first time.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened to me,” he said.

Kanaski considers Raleigh Island one of the most thrilling discoveries he’s seen in more than 20 years of Service work. That’s saying something: Kanaski has prowled abandoned plantations and at least one site where hapless Union soldiers were held by their Confederate captors.

“I’d put this in my top five,” he said.


Mark Davis, public affairs specialist, (404) 679-7291

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