Key Marco is a small island off the southwest coast of Florida, near to the Ten Thousand Islands and large areas of mangrove swamp. In 1896 a Smithsonian archaeologist named Frank Cushing conducted excavations in a small muddy pond on the island he called the Court of the Pile Dwellers. From that pond he recovered more than a thousand artifacts, many of wood or fiber. The most famous is the figurine known as the Key Marco Cat. Most people think this is not a cat but a divine being, its shape part cat and part human.
View of Cushing's Excavation
The date of the finds is surprisingly obscure, given the amount of organic material. The first radiocarbon date on wood from the site was 1670 CE, obviously too late. More recently somebody else ran five different dates that came out between 55 and 850 CE. Most people think those are too early. So most archaeologists rely on style, a notoriously subjective business. Most of the estimates I have seen are between 1100 and 1500 CE, with a few going back as early as 700; one careful skeptic says only "between 700 and 1500 AD." Excavations done in the 1960s focused on shell middens about 200 meters away from the pond; they turned up a lot of pottery dating to between 900 and 1500 CE.
Nor is it really clear what this pond actually was. As you will see, Cushing found a bunch of masks and other ceremonial-looking objects, making the pond seem like a ceremonial site and likely a place of sacrifice. But a lot of very ordinary-looking garbage also turned up, discarded clam shells and squash rinds and the like. If the site really had a long occupation period, then perhaps it was a ceremonial pool in some periods and a trash dump in others. Here is one of my favorite finds from the site, a barracuda jaw trimmed and shaped for use as a cutting tool. There is very little stone in that part of Florida, so many tools were made of seashells, fish bones, and the like.
Deer Mask, wooden, originally decorated with clay and paint. (Illustration from Cushing's original publication and old photograph) The ears of this wooden contraption were made separately and attached with string. The mask has holes on the back that were probably used to attach a costume. This and several other objects emerged from the muck brilliantly colored, but those colors started to fade instantly, and they are now rather dim and gray.
One of Cushing's illustration pages, with two views of a wooden tray carved with an alligator.
Another fascinating find: a shell that was used an a palette, still containing pigment marked with brush strokes.
Masks, combination of Cushing drawings and modern photos.
And a famous painting of a bird, now usually identified as a woodpecker although I gather its markings do not exactly match any real species. It's an astonishing collection of wonders. Since it was all drawn from a single 1-acre pond at one archaeological site that is otherwise not especially impressive, it also reminds us how much of American Indian art has been lost.