One of the few places in Florida where the public can view 2500 years of Native American archeology.
While Juan Ponce de Leon was the leader of the first mission to land in Florida, it should be no surprise that his company wasn’t the first people on the Peninsula. De Leon’s first landing in 1513 was over 50 years prior to the first permanent European settlement in La Florida, but at the same time, there was a large and ancient settlement on the Gulf Coast whose history was coming to an end.
Experts can trace human habitation in Florida to roughly 14,000 years ago, at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch (Ice Age). The Crystal River site is a later development. Located about 100 miles (160 km) north of Tampa Bay, Crystal River is a site that was continuously occupied by Native Americans for at least 2000 years from around 500 BCE to around the time of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas.
The 61 acre (25 hectare) site is one of the most culturally significant places in Florida. While Native Americans had called Florida home for thousands of years, this wasn’t just a village where people lived. It was a sacred site for burials, rituals and cultural activities.
Made up of six mounds, the complex was a destination for thousands of people every year who came from miles away for burials and other rituals. Dating as early as 250 BCE, the burials show that the community was connected with a large culture area that extend well into the panhandle area of Florida and over the the St. Johns River and north into Georgia and the Carolinas. These burials included tools and other objects that came from as far away as the Ohio River and the Hopewell Culture centered there.
Because some of the more than 1200 burials have been dated, researchers are able to see how burial practices changed over the 2 milenia represented. Objects associated with the burials show which other cultures with which the local community traded directly or indirectly. For instance, copper artifacts came from the Ohio River area, some 800 miles (1290 km) away. It helps to show how interconnected people were in pre-Columbian North America.
As is common around coastal Florida, the mounds are mostly middens. Middens are waste dumps containing primarily oyster and clam shells, but also include anything else that natives would have thrown away including animal bones, turtle shells, broken pottery and damaged tools. Considering the length of time the site was inhabited, it’s not surprising that the primary midden was said to have reached 1,300 feet (396 m) long, 100 feet (30 m) wide and at least 7 feet (2 m) high.
Two of the mounds in the complex are considered to have been used for ritual purposes. The highest mound, which looks out over the Crystal River, has 51 steps that lead up to an modern observation deck. The mound is approximately 30 feet (9 m) high. Though a large portion of the mound was removed in the recent past, it originally measured 180 feet (55 m) long and 100 feet (30 m) wide. This a great place to view parts of the complex as well as the river. If you look through the steps as you’re climbing to the top, you can see the shells that make up the mound.
There is also a chunk of limestone about 3 feet (1 m) high. It’s considered to be a stele – a carved monument. The carving is highly faded at this point, but there’s a sign that shows the carving and tells a bit about the stele. It’s not really known what the stele represents as it’s considered to be the only one of its kind outside of the Caribbean and South America. It actually poses more questions than it answers.
Opened in 1965, Crystal River Archaeological State Park is actually a state park located inside another state park. The area is managed by Crystal River Preserve State Park. The archaeological part contains a museum at the parking area and the rangers there are quite knowledgeable about the site.
Walking around the complex can be done by following a paved trail with informational markers at each important location.
In 1970, the Crystal River Indian Mounds were designated a National Historic Landmark.
Because of the length of time the site was inhabited and the sacred nature of its use, Crystal River Archaeological State Park is considered to be one of the more significant ancient sites in the US. Fortunately, the site is protected by the state. Hopefully, there will be further archaeological work done here as there are still many unanswered questions.