Diver discovers 7,000 year-old underwater graveyard off Florida coast

Published March 1 2018
Updated March 1 2018

An amateur diver came across human remains while exploring waters off the Florida coast near Venice in 2016.

Turns out, those remains are from a Native American underwater graveyard that is more than 7,000 years old.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Wednesday announced the findings at the Manasota Key offshore site, calling them "unprecedented" and a major boon for understanding the state’s ancient civilizations.

"The Florida Department of State takes our responsibility for the preservation, respectful treatment and security of this rare and unique site very seriously," Detzner said in a statement.

"Our dedicated team of underwater archaeologists has done an incredible job of documenting and researching the Manasota Key Offshore archaeological site, and I am extremely proud of the work.

"Our hope is that this discovery leads to more knowledge and a greater understanding of Florida’s early peoples."

The amateur diver first discovered the human remains in what eventually became the excavation site in the waters of Manasota Key in June 2016. The diver then reported the findings to the Bureau of Archaeological Research and the State Department’s Division of Historical Resources.

The site is on the continental shelf in offshore waters, where the human remains appeared to have been "preserved in a peat-bottomed freshwater pond," according to the release.

A team of underwater archaeologists determined the site covers just under an acre along the Florida shoreline near Venice.

There were multiple places at the site that contained peat and wooden stakes. The stakes were used in burial practices, and radiocarbon dating found that two stakes were more than 7,200 years old — from a time referred to as the Archaic Period, according to the state.

The water level at the time was about 30 feet lower than it is today in the Gulf of Mexico. As sea levels rose, 21 feet of water covered the pond. The pond would have sat on dry land roughly 9 feet above sea level at that time.

The peat was the key to preserving the human remains, according to the DOS, as it slows organic decay.

Division of Historical Resources director Timothy Parsons said it is crucial that the remains are treated delicately.

"As important as the site is archaeologically, it is crucial that the site and the people buried there are treated with the utmost sensitivity and respect," Parsons said in a statement. "The people buried at the site are the ancestors of America’s living indigenous people. Sites like this have cultural and religious significance in the present day."

Researchers are also working closely with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to ensure that the remains are cared for while a preservation plan is formulated. Scientists eventually plan to use the collected data to recreate the prehistoric environment.

The site will be monitored by law enforcement to guard against anyone seeking to remove artifacts. Under Florida law, it is a first-degree misdemeanor to take artifacts from an archeological site without authorization and it’s a third-degree felony to knowingly disturb, destroy, remove, vandalize, or damage an unmarked human burial place.

Contact Donovan Harrell at dharrell@tampabay.com.