icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Musings on Mounds

I have been sick. I don’t know if it’s this year’s version of the flu or a flare-up of an old ear problem that has been making me nauseous, but I’m grateful for President Obama’s recent advocacy of precision medicine. We so much need to have personalized medical tests and records that can create precise treatments designed for each differing individual. The funding that the National Institutes of Health will get for this, however, is in the hundreds of millions, while the Pentagon continues to get hundreds of billions to wage war. I saw a small story in Sunday’s news that some 4,000 troops are headed to Kuwait. Why? Why would we want to get mired down again where we went decades ago? It was a place where women couldn’t even vote, but that did not stop us from supporting the status quo. It’s enough to make me sick, if I weren’t already.

So I’ve gone to my handy e-file titled “Sidebars That Were Cut.” These are items I wrote for my upcoming book on Florida women, but (as usual) I wrote more than could be published at a reasonable price, so now I have this file of leftovers. The book, by the way, is scheduled to be out in April; you can find and preorder it on the website of the University Press of Florida. It’s titled They Dared to Dream: Florida Women Who Shaped History. I feared that title would cause readers to think that it’s a collection of individual biographies and argued for Always There: Women and Florida History, which I thought would better convey that this is a Florida chronological narrative highlighting women, but was overruled. We authors don’t always get what we want.

Anyway, here is one of the sidebars that you won’t see in it. I called it “Musings on Mounds.” It’s about the high mounds of earth that prehistoric Floridians left, most of which were bulldozed in the early twentieth century. Their contents were used for road paving and construction during that unregulated building boom. For those of us in Hillsborough, this ancient mystery is best visualized by thinking of places such as the Leisey Shell Pit in Ruskin or even names such as Shell Point Road on south Tampa’s Ballast Point. Florida’s best preserved mound – or midden, in archeologists’ preferred terminology – probably is the one at Fort Walton Beach in the Panhandle, but mound building tribes lived as far north as Illinois. Most archeologists have pat answers for why they were built, but I continue to see them as a phenomenon in need of further thought. It’s another thing in our wide world that merits pondering.

* * *

Archeologists tend to categorize the mounds left by early Floridians as having three motivations: burial mounds, temple mounds, and those that were just garbage dumps, especially for meal leftovers of oysters, conch, and scallops. Florida mounds in fact are composed largely of these shells -- but it also is true that other mounds were built by tribes who lived many hundreds of miles away from access to shelled seafood. Today’s scholars theorize that these mounds were intended for ceremonial and religious purposes, and that certainly is true of some.

Egypt’s pyramids and Central America’s Mayan structures have similar construction styles and purposes. American mounds arose later, in the same era that Europeans began building monumental cathedrals. Attitudes towards completion also appear to have been similar. Almost every European cathedral was built over a period of centuries, with many decades passing between bouts of building. Mound construction in Florida, too, seems to have been periodic. Especially burial mounds in which human bones have been found -- such as that at Lake Jackson, near Tallahassee -- indicate that additional layers of soil may have been added after deaths in each generation.

We also could conclude that earlier peoples had much more relaxed ideas about time than today. They appear to have set no construction deadlines and apparently believed it appropriate that the next generation carry on the work. Unlike today, end-goals were not defined, and people seemed content to build whenever there was sufficiently leisure and desire. Modern people might benefit from similar reflections on the meaning of time. Just as such meditation is important, so is curiosity and questioning. Although archeologists seldom speculate on this, it may be worth inquiring if mounds could have had purposes other than those commonly supposed.

If we can wend our way past mystical ceremonies to the practicality of daily life, some very good reasons occur to me for why they were where they were. In peninsular Florida, almost all mounds were constructed along coastal mangrove swamps; in the nation’s interior, they rise from delta backwaters near rivers. Before pesticides, these places were filled with teeming hordes of mosquitoes – and mound building might have been simply a way to rise above the muck, marshes, and standing-water, to allow humans to live and especially to sleep in a place higher than mosquitoes can fly.

These artificial hills also make useful surveillance posts. If, for example, one sits atop the bird-observation tower at Manatee County’s Emerson Point, much of Tampa Bay is revealed. The Calusa, based around modern Fort Myers, were traditional enemies of the Tocobago of Tampa Bay -- and Tocobago sentinels on such a high mound could spot a Calusa canoe that aimed to enter the Manatee River. The same is true all over flat Florida, as well as and in the river bottoms of Mississippi, Arkansas, and on to Illinois, where mound builders lived at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. When deltas lacked high hills, river bluffs, and rocky mesas that offered natural watchtowers to tribes elsewhere, it made military sense to create elevated places for sentries. Mounds may have been intended simply to see what might be happening in one’s otherwise invisible backyard.

We also know that Plains Indians had information systems based on smoke signals: indeed, the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps, which became the world’s leading communication innovator, originally took its name from such primitive signaling. Again, common sense tells us that sending a signal from a high place is more effective than from a low one, and mounds might have been built for that purpose. It is easy to imagine a night sky of fiery messages passed along on the mounds that follow the outline of Florida’s West Coast. A fire lit at Crystal River, for instance, conceivably could transmit news all the way down to Key Marco, more than two hundred miles away.

Prehistory sometimes literally is carved in stone -- but the meaning behind those carvings remains open to interpretation. In Florida, where we have little that is carved in any way, it is especially important to keep an open mind about aboriginal intentions. New scholarship in women’s history, indeed, is a reflection of the fact that the most vital intellectual tools of discovery in any field are keen curiosity and desire for more complete understanding. Prehistory possibilities can be explored, and speculations can lead to postulations, which lead to theories. Indeed, that is the only way in which science progresses. Einstein said it best: “Imagination is greater than knowledge.”

* * *

Big leap in time here, but still on point in terms of recognizing that the standard story may not be fully valid – and that is especially true in terms of women’s contributions to civilization. We finally are reaching a place in history, though, when the brainpower of half the population can add their share to human progress without constant bullying from the proudly ignorant. The best example in the entire world is Hillary Clinton. She has gone where no woman prior to her has gone, demonstrating to dictators all around the world that everyone benefits when people, including women, are free.

So I want to sign off by alerting you to a message from my old friend, former Mayor Sandy Freedman. Sandy led a rally a year or so ago to signal the support that Hillary has in Tampa Bay – something that I’ve known was real for a long time. Back in 1991, when Bill Clinton began running for the presidency, Hubby and I were eager to get onboard: as you may remember, we grew up in Arkansas, and our families there were extremely excited to see their very competent governor run nationally.

Mayor Sandy was the earliest public supporter here in Tampa, and I helped her organize a luncheon when Hillary came to town. The event was in a big room at the convention center, and we charged $250 – a significant amount for a woman then and now. I sat at the check-in table, and it was the only time in my life when people threw checks to me and said that it didn’t matter if I couldn’t guarantee them a seat, much less anything to eat. They were willing to stand up for Hillary.

She won’t be at this “Ready for Hillary” rally, but her organizers will be, and they will take note of who wants to be in on the ground floor. Moreover, it’s cheap, democratically and cleverly priced at $20.16. Bringing ten people or contributing $201.60 makes you at host. It’s at Mise en Place, 442 West Kennedy, from 5:30 to 7:30 on Tuesday, February 24. You can sign up at https://www.readyforhillary.com/Recruiter-Tool.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.

Make a comment to the author