Prehistoric clues lie buried around Tarpon

Published Aug. 17, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Phyllis Dailey Kolianos shows off a shell that a resident here used as a hammer or ax at least 500 years ago. Then she handles a flat, rock cutting tool of similar age.

"They're really beautiful," she says.

Both were found during the construction of homes in northwest Tarpon Springs. It just goes to show that time travel is possible here. You might only have to dig a few feet into the ground to find the city's prehistoric heritage.

Kolianos would like to make sure this part of the city's past is preserved. At 52, the mother of two recently received her bachelor's degree in anthropology, a lifelong interest, and now she wants to achieve a master's. She has made some discoveries in the city that have fueled a desire to know more.

By searching through historical maps, Kolianos thinks she has located what remains of the Safford Mound, the third Indian burial mound to be excavated in Pinellas and one of the more famous finds on the Gulf Coast.

The mound, which was about 128 feet in diameter and about 6 feet tall, was excavated in 1896 by a team from the Smithsonian Institution led by Frank H. Cushing. The archaeologist dug here while waiting three months for a ship to take him to a more famous excavation at Key Marco off the southwest Florida coast.

In Tarpon, Cushing's team found numerous fine pottery pieces and decorative ornaments made from bone, shell, quartz, crystal and stone dating as far back as 500 B.C. They also uncovered about 600 human skeletons.

Kolianos has been working for months to have the site recorded again by the state, which forbids human burial sites to be disturbed. There is evidence that human remains are still there.

Although the elevated mound was destroyed by the scientific excavation and the construction of businesses on the land, some of site still could exist underground, perhaps undisturbed.

There is also the possibility that Kolianos' hunch is wrong and what has been found are only scraps left from previous excavations. But until someone can determine that, Kolianos thinks it needs to be protected.

"These kinds of things are irreplaceable," she said. "Once they're gone, they can't be salvaged."

Kolianos won't discuss the exact location of her find. The owner of the property was upset by her discovery, she said. Disclosing the location also would make the mound vulnerable to unscrupulous artifact hunters.

Past state reports put the Safford Mound near the Anclote River east of Pinellas Avenue, but they did not pinpoint its location. Historic maps and an old-timer's recollection at the Tarpon Springs Historical Society place the mound farther south on Pinellas Avenue, but north of Cypress Street.

The "rediscovery" of the Safford Mound raises questions about what else might be under the city.

Many of the prehistoric sites here have not been thoroughly studied, although development has probably ruined many significant sites. Some people would like to salvage more of this area's prehistory by recording and protecting what sites remain.

The state's Division of Historical Resources has listed 40 sites in or near Tarpon Springs where evidence of the area's early inhabitants has been found. Fred Howard and Anderson county parks and the Point Alexis and Myers Cove neighborhoods are a few places where numerous artifacts have turned up.

Brent Weisman, a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida in Tampa, who taught Kolianos, thinks much could still be learned.

"There's not been very much real archaeological work done in Tarpon Springs," Weisman said. "There's never been a survey that recorded and tested all the sites. Really, very little is known."

The city owns none of the artifacts that were found here. Cushing shipped many of the best pieces to the Smithsonian. The collection was then sent to a Philadelphia museum operated by the University of Pennsylvania.

Some of the pottery has since been returned to the Florida Museum of Natural History. A few pottery shards and arrowheads are displayed at the Tarpon Springs Historical Society. Other artifacts may be part of private collections.

Kolianos has urged the city to get back some of the items that were sent away and display them at an educational center that is being considered for the old Craig Park library building. The building closed when Tarpon opened a new library.

City staff members have been receptive, but they expect to spend six months planning before they unveil a proposal for the building. They are discussing creating a heritage center that would tell the city's whole history.

"People just don't realize how many thousands of people were living here all those years ago," Kolianos said. "Any time anybody digs down into the area, there's always that possibility they're going to find a piece of history. It would be nice to preserve some of that."