ST. PETERSBURG — The Driftwood neighborhood has a long history of finds in its soil, the latest of which local archaeologists are calling the "mystery box.''
Neighborhood resident Kim O'Brien discovered the box about three months ago, and now archaeologists and local volunteers are excavating with an eye toward figuring out what it is. The best guess to this point is a cistern or septic tank from the beginnings of the last century.
Archaeological discoveries are nothing new in the neighborhood. About 150 years ago, a Pinellas pioneer found an old shell fort thought to be used by natives. About 100 years ago, the son of the co-founder of St. Petersburg built the "Mullet Farm," where children later found a Civil War cannonball, an old rosary box and several arrowheads. O'Brien was one of those children.
"This area is imbued with history," she said. The mystery box proved that Driftwood is still a hot spot for archaeological discoveries 151 years after Pinellas pioneers Abel Miranda and John Bethel found that old shell fort, as Bethel wrote in Bethel's History of Point Pinellas.
O'Brien said her family moved to the Mullet Farm, a 1910 residence by Big Bayou, in 1920. Her family also made its mark on Pinellas history, including her grandfather, George Gandy Jr., of Gandy Bridge fame. This spawned O'Brien's interest in Driftwood history and may have led to the discovery of the mystery box.
"We knew when we were kids to watch out for things, keep your eye open," O'Brien said. So she knew that when the yardman fell in a hole in her mother's back yard, there had to be a story behind the box they discovered. She got in touch with the Central Gulf Coast Archaeology Society and eventually with Jeff Moates from the Florida Public Archaeology Network, who is the lead archaeologist on the mystery box.
"Driftwood has Native American components," Moates said. "The goal of this survey is to see what is left of those earlier components."
Although the archaeologists have not reached a conclusion, Moates said he thinks the box is a cistern or septic tank based on the pipes that turn downward on either side of the box. He said it could be associated with the construction of the 1910 Mullet Farm, but Moates and O'Brien agree that the box was out of use before her family moved in. Excavating the box also led to the discovery of a red glass bead with facets, which Moates said is probably from between 1880 and 1915 and was used as decoration.
"Artifacts give us indication to the time period," Moates said. With Driftwood so close to Big Bayou, he said artifacts aren't going to be too deep.
Moates said the dig is unique because neighbors are volunteering and much of the labor is free. He said it has involved "low-tech stuff": a shovel and a screen, spoons, tools to cut roots and a plastic bag to recover artifacts. A group from the University of South Florida and volunteers completed "shovel tests" where they dug about 3 feet deep.
Moates and the USF team also dug in three other locations around Driftwood and found items that could be related to the occupations of former residents, including prehistoric stone tools.
He said this survey was the first exploratory step to find out more about the Driftwood area. Moates and other volunteers plan to complete more tests and finish the Driftwood dig by December.
Many neighbors, like O'Brien, are eagerly awaiting more findings. Although O'Brien has a house full of artifacts and family stories, she still hopes to gain a confirmation of what she has always known about Driftwood history.
"Everyone around here has an interest," she said. "The main thing we've done is seize an opportunity to put all the pieces together."