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Arrowhead points to ancient inhabitants

Published Aug. 20, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

The moment that University of South Florida (USF) anthropology professor Ray Williams spied the ancient Indian arrowhead, he knew he had stumbled upon one of those moments of archaeological greatness. With the small artifact, Williams and 14 university students were able to link the land near Cowhouse Creek and the Hillsborough River to a group of Indians who lived there as early as 5,000 B.C.

"It was a great find," Williams said. "It was one of those moments when you just want to stand up and say, "I told you so. I told you so.' It's not often that you get to brag."

The find proved what Williams had been saying for the past three years: The site once was inhabited by Indians during the middle archaic period.

Now, a year after he and his students found the projectile point, Williams said the analysis and classification of several additional tons of artifacts are complete. The results support his theory that the land was used as a base camp and a quarry area, where Indians went to gather stones and make tools and weapons.

Additionally, he said, the group collected enough evidence to classify the area as a potential site for the National Register of Historic Places.

A rich history

"It was the tail end of the last Ice Age . . . when Florida was half the size it is today," Williams said, describing the time period that produced the artifacts he and his students unearthed.

Among the items collected are portions of artifacts that indicate less conclusively the area might have been inhabited as early as 12,000 B.C., the earliest recorded time that humans migrated into Florida, Williams said.

It was a time before gardening and pottery, bows and arrows and today's big game. Prehistoric elephants, bison and saber-tooth tigers roamed the land, and the only weapons to kill them were wooden clubs and rocks.

The woods and trails are paved with waste from thousands of years of quarrying. The waste, along with chips, spearpoints, hand axes and scrapers discovered in the area, will reveal how the inhabitants made tools, what they hunted and what they ate, Williams said.

And they tell an interesting story: the Indians were hunting and gathering nomads who probably also did some fishing. One part of the dig was a quarry, where the Indians probably set up small camps and also gathered stone. Another site was a village where people lived for thousands of years.

Although little evidence remains _ only stone has survived Florida's acidic soil _ the inhabitants likely used baskets, animal skins and bones and other matter for their essentials, said USF graduate student Lyle Torp, who spent a year analyzing and classifying the antiquated matter.

Torp, who also is using the information for his thesis, said the waste generated from making tools and weapons also will reveal seasonal movements and settlement patterns.

"Artifacts are not always what you're after," Torp said. "Sometimes you're looking at specific types of behavior: how they got the rocks, how they chose what rock was good for making tools, what they did with it and what happened to it afterward."

Success by association

As with many sites in Florida, the Tampa Bay area has been studied for its archaeological value since the late 19th century. Although not the oldest site in Hillsborough County, Cowhouse Creek is one of the largest.

William's dig is the first formal excavation of the Cowhouse Creek area, even though archaeologists have suspected its historical significance for the past 50 years.

Most scientific efforts in the state concentrated on artifact description, rather than attempts to answer specific questions about cultural behavior, Torp said.

That's what makes the studies on the Cowhouse Creek site all that more interesting, said B. Calvin Jones, an archaeology researcher in the state's Division of Historical Resources.

Coupled with evidence collected from nearby sites, the excavation transforms it into one of three major archaeological sites in the county. It is set among hundreds of smaller, less significant ones, Jones said. All are in the northwest Tampa and Thonotosassa area.

"Cowhouse Creek is an extremely important site because everything went on there," said Jones, who surveyed areas surrounding Cowhouse Creek in the 1970s and 1980s, before construction of the Tampa Bypass Canal and Interstate 75. "It contains the whole range of stone age cultures, back 11,000 years ago to pottery making time, 4,000 years ago."

Classified as a middle archaic period site, Cowhouse Creek's distinction is enhanced because of its proximity to Harney Flats, just three miles south of the Cowhouse Head site.

Harney Flats has become one of the most important excavations in Florida, Jones said, and it resulted in one of the best studies done of any Paleo-Indian site in the eastern United States.

Also nearby is Weatherington Island, an archaeological site investigated as part of the Interstate 75 project. It yielded extensive information that helped explain behavior at quarry sites, Torp said.

Numerous other recorded sites are in the immediate vicinity, most the result of surveys done before construction projects over the past 20 years, Torp found during his research.

"We joke a lot about it," Torp said. "That entire section of the county is one big archaeological site. It's difficult to determine where one ends and another begins."

Preservation efforts

Torp said the materials the students found at the Cowhouse Creek site might not be the most spectacular collection of artifacts _ most of them are fragments or shavings from rock tools and weapons _ but it will yield information that researchers can use for several years, he said.

In the meantime, Torp and Williams said the first priority for the site should be securing it against looters who steal spearheads and other artifacts. Hundreds of huge pits, where looters have dug out the artifacts, make the area look like a bombing range.

"It looks like craters on the moon," Torp said. "This particular site has been ravaged for years."

Looting is such a problem that the raiders even entered the site in the middle of the night and destroyed a pit Williams and his students were working on, Williams said.

"They waited until we were down to a certain level and then dug into the walls of our pit and took all the artifacts," Williams said, recalling the most depressing day of the dig. "They were knowledgeable enough to know that most of the artifacts came from a certain level."

Looting also was one of the main reasons for the study.

The group undertook the seven-week dig last summer with a $25,000 grant from the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud), which owns the surrounding 15,000 acres.

Swiftmud official Kenneth Kramer, who worked with the USF crew during the dig, said the water officials wanted to restore the area without disturbing its historical significance.

"We found it was much more complex than just going out there with a shovel and filling holes," Kramer said.

Most of the money went to Torp, who spent the next 12 months conducting additional studies on the site and devising ways to preserve the area. Last month, he submitted a comprehensive report of the group's findings and his recommendations to Swiftmud.

Kramer said Swiftmud can't implement the university's suggestions for protecting the area until financing becomes available. In addition to planting trees and erecting signs to discourage trespassing, William's group has recommended that Swiftmud survey, map and record the dug-out areas, and then fill them carefully with dirt that does not contain archaeological material.

That way, future archaeologists will recognize and bypass areas that have been looted, Williams said.

"We look back at what archaeologists did 50 years ago," said Williams, adding that 50 years from now archaeologists and new technology will reveal much more about the ancient Indian culture.

"We got a lot of information out of the site, but now I'd like to see it preserved."

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